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East African arirport project hangs in the balance

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Africa Correspondent  Mar 30, 2016

News emerging from aviation circles in Nairobi is painting a grim picture over the future of Kenya's most ambitious aviation infrastructure project, the 56 billion Kenya shillings expansion of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), under what has been dubbed “Project Greenfield.”

Key to the airport expansion was to be a second runway, among the first components to be completed, and crucial, given that an incident - as has repeatedly happened in the past - will shut down operations at JKIA while the airport has only a single runway.

While sources from within the Kenyan government insist that the project was only slowing down, no sound reasons were given for such a decision, and in contrast, the Kenya Airport Authority controversially canceled the work contract altogether, notably after the contractor had fully mobilized machinery and labor resources and had begun surface work.

It appears that the board of the Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) sat uncharacteristically on Easter Monday to endorse the decision taken by the KAA management, and a statement was issued by the office of the Acting CEO who then labored to explain why the present work on the existing terminal, plus the launch last year of a temporary terminal - a pre-fab facility with a life span of about 15 years - will be enough to keep JKIA as East Africa's leading airport.

Airline sources have, however, immediately shot holes into the reasons advanced by KAA and are demanding that the public be told the truth over the cancellation, especially in the face of very likely hefty compensation claims from the contractors.

“'For someone with inside knowledge, … the reasons given by KAA [are] not holding water. They are basically a feeble excuse, however, forgetting how the same KAA had lobbied hard to convince government and the public that Kenya needs such a project to stay at the cutting edge of airport technology. The airlines here all know how unsustainable a further expansion of air traffic into and out of JKIA will be without the second runway. Every time the runway closes because of an accident or incident, … expenses run into the hundreds of thousands of US dollars for the airlines when flights must be diverted. If KAA has forgotten about that element of expansion, which is overdue by many years in fact, then we are dealing with a bunch of incompetent characters who, like their predecessors, should be sacked, too. If KAA had proceeded with the second runway and supporting taxiway and deferred other construction, fair and good, but canceling the entire project shows what caliber of personnel KAA has at the top, chairman included.”

The source, as did others, refused to speculate if the current fleet adjustment and complete revision of “Project Mawingu” of national airline Kenya Airways could have influenced the KAA decision. However, given that many international airlines have expressed interest to fly to Nairobi, some on condition of a second runway being in place, the complete cancellation of this infrastructure expansion has dire consequences for Kenya's aviation sector.

Similar sentiments were expressed in the run up to South Africa hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2010, when airports across the country were modernized and expanded, leading to Skytrax over the past years regularly placing airports like Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg on top of the African pecking order and the only country with their airports making it into the global top 20. “When you see how South Africa's economy, and in particular tourism, has benefitted from the new airport facilities, you must question why our people cannot apparently see what the South Africans saw. It is not the port of Lamu or the Standard Gauge Railway which will bring visitors to Kenya, but the airlines. If facilities are constrained, if overcrowding is to return the way we had it two years ago, the impact on tourism could be serious. Balala [Kenya's Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala] wants three million tourists by 2018, and how will we accomplish that, and go beyond to one day maybe 5 million, if our main airport does not grow ahead of the additional arrivals and departures? Wrong move, patently a wrong move,” then added another source when asked to comment.

Given that the decision appears to have been taken without sanction, and approval by central government organizations, it is now expected that the KAA board and top management will be dragged to parliament to answer the sessional committee on transport what possessed them to act in the manner they did, more so as the office of the Attorney General already voiced public concerns that KAA had not sought a legal opinion from the Attorney General's office, leaving the country exposed to potentially crippling financial compensation claims. Financiers were also seemingly caught by surprise but would not comment at this stage.

JKIA was to reach a capacity on opening of the new terminal of more than 20 million passengers a year, and the cancellation of the project, if it is allowed to stand and is not reversed by the central government, would see the capacity capped at only 10 million passengers and a single runway, with all the negative consequences for the growth of the aviation sector in Kenya and the economy at large.

East African arirport project hangs in the balance

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