Many airlines flying into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport have hired private security firms to guard passengers, cargo and aircraft rather than rely on the Kenya Airports Authority or local police for protection.
Although U.S. and Kenyan authorities said there is no immediate threat of terrorism to the airport or to airlines operating there, previous incidents have raised concerns.
Kenya has been hit with three major terrorist incidents over the last 11 years. Al-qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, killing more than 200 people. In 2002 a car bomb exploded at a seaside hotel frequented by Israeli tourists, killing 15 people. At almost the same time, terrorists tried to shoot down a charter jet carrying Israeli tourists with a shoulder-fired missile.
The question of security at the Nairobi airport was raised again last month when Delta Air Lines abruptly canceled an inaugural flight from Atlanta to Nairobi after the Transportation Security Administration refused to sanction the route.
Aviation experts say private airport security guards are common in war zones around the world, but rare in relatively stable nations like Kenya. Still, national carrier Kenya Airways is among those using a private security firm at the Nairobi airport.
“We have done that because of the fact that we don’t believe that the security we get out of the airport is enough,” Titus Naikuni, the group managing director of Kenya Airways, told The Associated Press.
“It is not just unique to Kenya. Even outside Kenya, people have done that,” said Naikuni. “I cannot abdicate that to a third-party security.”
The Kenya Airports Authority, an autonomous government organization that manages the country’s airports, declined to comment.
Naikuni says Kenyan forces may be lacking in security coverage, but they do well at intelligence gathering. “They provide us with information, unfortunately sometimes we can’t share that information because it is confidential. But they are very knowledgeable,” Naikuni said.
On June 2 Delta Air Lines canceled its first scheduled flight from Atlanta to Nairobi following a last-minute order from the Transportation Security Administration Division of the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
According to a TSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, Delta sold tickets for the flight without approval for the route from the government.
Delta did not get the go-ahead for several reasons, including a security assessment of the airport and an agreement with Kenya on countering potential threats, the official said. The official provided no other details.
Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said that the airline has long followed the accepted industry practice of announcing and selling service pending required government approvals.
“A late decision by TSA to deny the start of service to Nairobi and Monrovia was a highly unusual situation that had never before occurred,” Elliott said. “Delta has apologized to customers who were impacted by this unexpected cancellation.”
A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to the media, said the cancellation is related to a Nov. 14 travel warning, citing threats to civilian aircraft.
The warning is a general one connected to the 2002 attempt to shoot down the charter jet, the official said, adding there was no specific threat to the Delta flight.
Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, said airlines expect governments to take responsibility for the safety and security of airports. The airline industry spent $5.9 billion last year to comply with government procedures to ensure safety and security at airports, said Lott, whose organization represents 230 airlines around the world.
“It’s not that common for airlines across the globe to hire private security forces at every airport they serve,” Lott said. “That’s why we rely on government resources and oversight to provide security for a city airport.”
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport plays a major role in Kenya’s business and tourism plans. A number of international airlines operate from it; including Air India, British Airways, Emirates, KLM, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, South Africa Airways, Swiss International Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic.
The number of passengers passing through the airport has risen to about 4.86 million in 2007 from 3.45 million in 2003, according to a government economic survey.
Kenya is a top tourist destination in Africa, because visitors can see wildlife in its natural habitat and enjoy miles of white sand beaches. Last year, 1.2 million tourists visited the country.
Kenya is also an economic and diplomatic hub for eastern Africa. Many businessmen, diplomats and aid workers pass through its main airport. Nairobi is the Africa headquarters for major investors such as Atlanta-based Coca Cola Co. It also hosts United Nations headquarters in Africa.
Associated Press Airlines Writer Harry Weber in Atlanta and Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Eileen Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.