Thursday, February 29, 2024

JKIA is a problem waiting to be fixed

Leonard Khafafa Public Policy Analyst

For many Kenyans, the mere mention of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) evokes pleasant memories. For some, it conjures that irreplicable frisson of excitement from the thrill of possibly the first flight of their lives.

For others, it reminds them of their first visit to Kenya’s Capital; in an entourage of villagers, to see off a distant relative flying to some exotic destination. Yet to others, it is reminiscent of the good old days when the scourge of terrorism was yet to afflict the world; when security was not a global concern with unrestricted access to most parts of the airport including the waving bay.

Not so the present-day traveller. That feeling of fou de joie appears to be dissipating with each subsequent year. And the change in vicissitudes can be attributed to constraints at the premier airport. Designed to handle 2.5 million passengers per year, JKIA now takes on more than 8.5 million travellers annually. And it shows!

Check-in counters serving all destinations are abysmally crowded even at the best of times. Immigration queues both for ingress and egress make for a very long wait. Bridges connecting planes to the terminal building are inadequate.

Many times, passengers disembark on the apron and are after that bussed to the terminal. After clearing with immigration, one has to wait for inordinately long periods for their baggage to be loaded onto the carousel. There are instances where the carousel has broken down forcing bags to be offloaded manually.

Recently, a nationwide power outage left JKIA in darkness for several hours.  Standby power generators did not kick in as expected. There were safety concerns over flights taking off and landing in pitch darkness.

Why Kenya Airways is abbreviated as ‘KQ’ and not ‘KA’

Whilst the Transport Cabinet Secretary took prompt action in dispatching the airport’s senior management, many felt it was more like a band-aid over a festering wound. That such an incident should have occurred, twice in as many months, is simply beyond the pale.

Attempts have been made to redress the situation at JKIA. Previously, a Privately Initiated Investment Proposal sought to hand over the management of the airport to the national carrier Kenya Airways.

It sought to nationalize KQ and to create four subsidiaries comprising Kenya Airports Authority (KAA), Kenya Airways (KQ), Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and a centralized aviation college. A holding company would then oversee all the businesses.

Perhaps it is now time to revisit this investment proposal albeit in a form that is more suited to the times. JKIA is currently managed by KAA. At the same time, KQ contributes more than 70 per cent of KAA’s revenues. KQ is JKIA’s hub carrier. It then follows that because it has skin in the game, KQ should ideally take part in managing JKIA.

Kenya Airways shining in extremis

For one, the airport would benefit from an infusion of the operational excellence that is slowly defining KQ this year.

Second, resources within the aviation industry would be pooled and allocated more efficiently without the wanton wastage that has characterized each subsidiary operating independently. It would permanently eliminate the need for costly bailouts from the government.

There is precedent globally with many countries successfully running all their aviation assets as consolidated entities. Ethiopian Airlines runs the Bole airport in Addis. It also owns the catering unit, the ground handling company and the aviation training school.

Emirates Airlines runs the airport in Dubai. It owns Dnata, the ground handling company. Qatar’s Hamad Airport, voted the best in the world, is run by the CEO of Qatar Airways. He was formerly the Chief Operating Officer of the airport.

This is something for policy wonks to consider with some measure of urgency.  A statement from IATA says,

“Africa recovery is in line with global recovery, expecting full passenger traffic recovery in 2024.”

This is ahead of the 2025 projections.  Kenya must be prepared to harness this!  Lackadaisical approaches to the development of the airport should not be countenanced. Renovation of terminal buildings previously estimated to take two months has dragged on for a year. The Greenfields terminal is yet to be built 10 years after it was first proposed.

And Kenya’s neighbours are not sitting pretty.  Ethiopian Airlines manages to transit millions of passengers through its hub Bole because it has a relatively new terminal that harnesses the throughput. The Rwandese government has committed USD 2 billion towards the building of a new airport as it positions Kigali as yet another hub on the continent.

Kenya Airways, now firmly on the recovery path, has recently announced that it intends to increase its footprint within the continent and beyond. But such plans would be stymied by JKIA’s infrastructure in its current state. Consolidating Kenya’s aviation assets would offer a relatively quick, affordable fix.

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