Of Devil’s Armpits and International Airports.

In November 2011, CNN published its list titled “10 of the world’s most hated airports.” Our very own Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) came in loud and proud at number 6, having been drubbed by London’s Heathrow, the Los Angeles International Airport and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle who came in third, second and first respectively. This is what the CNN report had to say:

“Saddled with a 1958 blueprint designed for 2.5 million passengers, JKIA receives close to twice that many. Hence the airport’s 2005, Three Phase, US$100 million expansion project which has seen long delays (something about the rain) and has been spinning its tires somewhere in Phase Two for the last few years. For now, that means business as usual: cramped spaces; long lines; inadequate seating; frequent power outages; tiny washrooms hiding up several flights of stairs; shabby duty free shops; overpriced food outlets; and business class lounges worthy of a shelter in mid-city Los Angeles. Sure, it’s a breeze compared to Lagos. But it could be so much better.”
To some, the mere fact that we even got cited as a global airport worth mentioning would perhaps provide some twisted sense of pride that we feature –notoriously I might add- on global indices. However, you just have to walk inside the main terminal past the 14 or so departure and arrival gates to know that the CNN reporter wasn’t giving short shrift to the state of the airport in their analysis. If anything they simply ran out of space to paint the complete picture. Luckily I have the luxury of a little more space.
The duty free shops are nothing but stuffy, untidily designed retail spaces that almost all sell the exact same items, which are displayed in the exact same way. Potential customers are engulfed by piles of unidentifiable stock that is packed to the rafters on thin display shelves jutting out against glass and aluminium framed shop walls thus providing a classic scene for a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare.
Passengers with long transit times curl prostrate on the ground, desperately trying to catch a few winks of sleep on the hard, terrazzo floors as arriving passengers gingerly pick their way over slumbering bodies to make their way to the immigration counters. The washrooms have to have been designed with petite, sprightly monkeys in mind, as those are the only mammals that can possibly navigate with regular ease the bizarre staircases and two feet wide cubicles that make up the lavatories. To the Kenya Airport Authority’s credit though, they have made an attempt to keeping them clean. So on my Lavatory Standard measure of cleanliness I’ll give JKIA three out of five stars – where one star equates to “the devil’s armpit” and five stars equate to “worthy of worship”.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the cabinet in the government: The government can’t manage the airport, build four lane highways, create a port in Lamu and whatever other grandiose targets we have for our aggressive vision 2030. We lack the capacity to do it and should concession it out to experienced and profit motivated airport operators who can run it like the business that it is. Kenya is no longer a piddling, little rural backwater represented as a blip on the former-colonies-we-used-to-have map in Buckingham Palace. Kenya is a vibrant growing economy, has the geographical benefit of being strategically located mid point of the African continent and has a reasonably well-educated citizenry that would make a good labor force for foreign direct investment. Sadly, the first impression a visitor gets on arriving at JKIA is one that is quite evidently at great odds with the rest of the infrastructural development going on in the country. Last week, I had the pleasure of transiting through Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. I passed through it last in June 2006 and it was ghastly to transit through as it ranked head to head with JKIA in terms of decrepit facilities. [On my Lavatory Standard, it definitely was a one star then] Turns out that a few months earlier in February, a consortium of three companies trading as Mumbai International Airport Limited was appointed to carry out the modernization of Mumbai Airport.
And modernize they did. Last week, I walked through spaciously wide boulevards of shopping space done in an open plan design, with French and American fashion houses retailing the latest in perfumery and clothes. There was a food court with KFC, Pizza Hut and local fast food and coffee shops as well as the British high street retailer WHSmith with a little outlet tucked into a corner. You cannot be blamed for thinking you were in a European airport. This transformation occurred in the last five years. The immigration officer who gave me a toothy smile as he stamped my passport informed me that they handle at least 8,000 passengers during the day and another 12,000 passengers at night.
The airport has five operating terminals spread over an operational area of 1,450 acres (5.9 km2) and is India’s and South Asia’s largest and most important airline hub; it handled more than 29.9 million passengers in 2010–2011. While this may be almost 6 times JKIA’s passenger traffic of 5.6 million in 2010, our economic growth prospects make such numbers quite attainable as does our vision to firmly stamp our position regional business hub. [On another note, 1,450 acres for an airport should make anyone in greater Syokimau nervous right about now] I do have to admit though that the Lavatory Standard for the Mumbai airport has only moved two notches to 3 stars. They really do need to get the cleaners to do their job instead of staring blankly at the bathroom walls in abject boredom.
We have to do something about our airport if we plan to be an economy to reckon with. It’s dreadfully archaic. The good news is it’s at least better than Lagos and Kinshasa if my colleagues are to be believed!

Twitter: @carolmusyoka