Kenya makes partial U-turn over Nairobi Airport expansion

When news broke last week that the Kenyan government and the Kenya Airport Authority were scaling back the planned expansion of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) into a world-class aviation facility by 2018/19, the stage was set for a likely showdown between airlines, both those flying to Nairobi and those who had expressed interest to fly there, and the Kenyan authorities.

It is understood that various interested parties, including national airline Kenya Airways, made prompt enquiries and representations over the issue of the second runway, which by now is years overdue. The pressure seems to have born fruits more or less instantly as the Kenyan Transport Cabinet Secretary has over the weekend assured the aviation industry and public at large that the construction of a second runway and connecting taxiways will continue after all. However, it is not clear if the present contractor which did some earth works already, will continue the construction of this element or if an entirely new tender will be drawn up and advertised, with all the subsequent delays of course to complete a second runway, which was due to completion way ahead of the Greenfield terminal.

However, the rest of Mr. Macharia’s statement also remains flawed in its assumption that the cancellation of Project Greenfield will have little impact on the future development of aviation in Kenya and the wider region.
With the Greenfield terminal in place would the capacity of East Africa’s largest airport have been pushed to 20 million passengers per annum and the assertion that existing facilities, which presently offer a combined capacity of 14 million passengers, will be enough for future growth, simply does not hold water.
One of the terminals cited by the Cabinet Secretary, if memory serves one right, was for a long time named ‘Temporary Terminal’, a pre-fab building with an estimated life span of 15 years, which therefore sooner or later will have to be replaced with a solid construction building. This terminal was last year renamed into Terminal 2A and will cater for a maximum of 5 million passengers per annum, before wear and tear requires a replacement.

Going by JKIA’s past record, when constant overcrowding and shortage of facilities damaged the reputation of Nairobi’s main airport and impacted on Kenya’s reputation as a leading tourist and investment destination in East Africa, a similar scenario may emerge towards the end of the decade and into the early 2020’s should traffic growth not be supported by staying ahead of the curve.

Kenya’s tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala set the country an ambitious target to bring in 3 million tourists over the space of the next few years, and given his ambitious nature he will not stop there once that number is getting into reach.

‘From where I stand, this turnaround is a compromise to avoid conflict with airlines. However, conflict with the contractor for Greenfield is already on the cards. The cancellation of the contract which was worth some 60 billion Shillings, will end up in court. I think this government needs to sort out its priorities. If they fear cost overruns, they should have employed better lawyers to make the contract water tight, no? But the simple truth is that all these mega projects they are talking about, new harbours, railways, highways and all, must be financed and sooner or later the money repaid. When Uganda suddenly pulled away from the pipeline project, that left us in Kenya with added cost we must finance ourselves. South Sudan is broke and how ever can they finance or pay their share of LAPSSET? [LAPSSET stands for a mega project Lamu Port – South Sudan – Ethiopia under which a new port is to be built in Lamu under which a railway, highway and pipeline link is to be created to Juba and Addis Ababa]. Ethiopia from all we know is struggling with financial issues also and Kenya alone, given the current debt burden, will find it very difficult to raise such finance. Then there is the Standard Gauge Railway. The Mombasa Nairobi section makes a lot of sense for us but then, the section from Nairobi to the Uganda border costs a lot more because of terrain challenges. If we are to pay for that so that Uganda has access to the SGR, given their own U-turn over the pipeline, we should question the validity of that commitment and in particular who pays for it. Money saved there could be used for Greenfield. Look at South Africa how they invested in new airports before the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It pays off so well now, regardless of that country’s problems tourists keep flooding there, airlines keep adding routes to those new airports and we in Kenya risk to be left behind. It is all about priorities and those I think this government needs to sort out first’ said one source while another took issue with the Chair of KAA when he ranted: ‘Whatever it is that Kimaiyo is uttering, don’t believe a word. Just remember his reign as police chief and his nonsense about tinted windows. So now he is a legal expert trying to tell us the Chinese contractor cannot sue us because they have not performed? We shall remind him when the case goes to court because that is where this is heading. Anyone who has recently passed by the construction site for Greenfield has seen what has been going on there. This cancellation will cost us a great deal of money as a country besides limiting future growth for aviation. Why do we tolerate such pseudo experts. Just go back to what the President said when they broke ground for Greenfield, has that all suddenly changed?.

Admittedly has the construction of the new Terminal 1A, now also equipped with its own arrival facility meeting global standards of passenger separation, been a game changer in particular for Kenya Airways and their SkyTeam partners. A world class facility offers the national airline space for growth and expansion even if it is presently slowed down by the carriers attempt to right size the fleet and review their past expansion strategy.

The refurbishment and modernization of the remaining terminal building however will, when complete, only raise passenger capacity to a combined 9 million, before departure and arrival halls overcrowded again. Given the global air travel forecasts, this may come sooner than anticipated and definitely sooner than the present actors in the Kenya government and the Kenya Airport Authority want the public to believe.
Hard choices need to be made no doubt and with the election date in 2017 coming closer and closer, it is anyone’s guess now which direction the government of President Kenyatta will go as he seeks a second term of office and needs success stories galore to convince the electorate to vote him back. However, aviation infrastructure is not something any country should gamble with, especially when so dependent on raising visitor numbers and facing competition, both on the continent and beyond, from countries which are investing in their future. Watch this space.