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Jomo Kenyatta Airport has shaken off trauma of 2013 fire

A year ago, a fire at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) destroyed the international arrivals terminal. In the weeks after the fire, passengers were served from tents because airport buildings were damaged. Today, JKIA has undergone such an amazing transformation that last year’s fire seems almost like a blessing in disguise.

The fire at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on 7 August 2013 is seen in this photo supplied by the Kenya Red Cross (@KenyaRedCross).

7 August 2013: The fire at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is seen in this photo supplied by the Kenya Red Cross (@KenyaRedCross).

The fire on 7 August 2013 was a shock not only to the country’s aviation sector but a jolt to all Kenyans. The fire was the biggest disaster in JKIA’s history. Fortunately, there were no deaths and only a handful of minor injuries reported.

At the time, the cause of the fire was not known. Investigations later found that the fire was sparked by faulty electrical wiring. “It was a simple fire gone bad,” said the Cabinet Secretary for Transport and Infrastructure, Michael Kamau, last October.

The fire may have been a blessing in disguise for JKIA and its operator, the Kenya Airports Authority. The government offered every possible support to help get JKIA up and running. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto were regular visitors at JKIA, often walking around to monitor progress on restoring services. The high-level interest in JKIA is not surprising: the airport contributes about 10% of national GDP.

14 August 2013: Tents used to host passengers following the fire at JKIA.

14 August 2013: Tents used to host passengers following the fire at JKIA.

Scheduled flights out of JKIA resumed the day after the fire, though most were leaving late. The fire not only destroyed the International Arrivals Unit but Units 1 and 2 (now Terminals 1B and 1C) were damaged by smoke. The punctuality of departures improved in ensuing weeks as the Kenya Airports Authority put up tents to create more space for waiting areas, check-in counters and banking services.

The National Youth Service provided buses that shuttled passengers across the airport. The terminal used for domestic flights was temporarily moved to the JKIA Cargo Centre and the NYS buses were useful in easing the movement of passengers.

Passengers and immigration officials at the temporary international arrivals terminal at JKIA. The building was originally designed as a parking garage.

Passengers and immigration officials at the temporary international arrivals terminal at JKIA. The building was originally designed as a parking garage.

A decision was made to convert an almost-complete storeyed parking into a temporary International Arrivals Terminal. Baggage handling machines and other equipment were ordered in what is, by government standards, a very short time. The modified International Arrivals Terminal was opened to travellers in September 2013, providing much needed relief for airport staff and passengers. Tents were dismantled after the temporary arrivals building became operational.

Due to the loss of an important section of JKIA to the fire, work on what was known as Terminal 4 was speeded up. Construction of Terminal 4 began in September 2010 and was to have been completed in June 2012 but the project had suffered delays. By the time of the JKIA fire, Terminal 4 was not complete. There were hopes that the new building would be ready by February 2014 but this did not happen. Terminal 4 was finally opened on 4 July 2014 and renamed Terminal 1A.

A photo published by the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) shows a section of Terminal 1A at Nairobi's JKIA.

A photo published by the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) shows a section of Terminal 1A at Nairobi’s JKIA.

Today, JKIA is pleasantly different from what it was before 7 August 2014. Terminal 1A has really changed the face of JKIA, and is the first major addition to the airport since the current buildings were opened in 1978. JKIA looks … well … almost new! The sense of optimism at the airport is very obvious.

Still on physical facilities, Kenya Airports is putting up a temporary, prefabricated unit to handle an anticipated increase in passengers while another mega-terminal is under construction. The giant terminal, known as the Greenfield Terminal, will handle 20 million passengers annually when completed in 2017. Construction began last December and will cost Ksh55.5 billion (US$654 million).

The building that bore the brunt of the fire will be demolished and a new structure put in its place. Terminals 1B and 1C will also undergo a major overhaul in coming years.

The Kenya Airports Authority is very happy at the triumph of JKIA from the ashes of last year’s fire. A lot of time and effort was spent in getting the air transport business back into the air. There were fears that JKIA could lose its status as the air transport hub of East Africa, but such fears have proved unfounded.

Important lessons were learnt in the wake of the August 7 fire at JKIA. Hopefully, such lessons will ensure a disaster of such magnitude – indeed, any disaster – does not happen again.

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