Nairobi's airport insecurities
The first U.S.-Kenya nonstop flight in 20 years has been delayed a little longer, apparently over security concerns at East Africa's biggest airport.
The inaugural Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta to Nairobi was due to arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport this afternoon for a ceremony, but the airline announced yesterday that it was postponing the direct service indefinitely "following a decision by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the agency required more time to review these flights."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Delta's hometown paper, reports that "it's the first time the Homeland Security Department’s Transportation Security Administration has denied international service by a U.S. carrier."
(Another new Delta service, nonstop from Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia, was also put off for security reasons, the airline said.)
The Government of Kenya, which has been extremely eager to get this flight off the ground (ahem), could barely hide its annoyance. It issued a terse statement saying: "The reasons for the postponement by Delta are still not very clear.
"The Government of Kenya has complied with all the additional security measures requested by Delta and Nairobi airports' security is excellent (emphasis added)."
Well, let's not get carried away.
Anyone who has flown through JKIA knows it can be, on its best days, an experience I will charitably describe as pleasantly chaotic. ("Pleasant," I suppose, only if you've planned ahead, checked in online, confirmed the inevitable flight delay, still reached at least 90 minutes before the scheduled departure -- and learned over the years which security directives you must follow and which are, shall we say, open to interpretation.)
It starts at the entrance off the highway, where cops stand outside the boom gate and wave drivers to the side based on a rough guess of how likely the driver's license is to be expired (thereby requiring a minimum 200-shilling [$2.50] bribe...I mean fine). It's a blatantly racist and utterly predictable system: if a Kenyan is driving and I'm in the passenger seat, inspection; if I'm driving, no inspection.
Then you get to the security before check-in, which can be haphazard. The metal detectors seem to work, but the luggage belt is one of those interpretive exercises. They've put up signs, for example, asking people to remove their laptops and place them into bins, but I've never done this -- figuring it wastes valuable seconds better spent in the departure lounge. More importantly, no one has ever stopped me.
Inside the terminal is where you really start to raise your eyebrows. For a start, as others have pointed out, there's no separate departure and arrival lounge. Everyone comes through the same narrow, dingy, often stinking corridor. This has to be one of the things that TSA is worried about.
Then, at the gate for the final security check, things get fuzzy again. The airport recently barred unsealed liquids on flights, which most airports did years ago but JKIA is ill-equipped to enforce. Before a recent 9-hour plane journey to Somaliland, I bought a bottle of water in the terminal and brought it to the gate, where I was informed that I couldn't bring the water on the flight because it wasn't sealed. "New policy," they said.
Rather than leaving the water behind (risking dehydration) or chugging a liter right there (risking having to enter the lavatory on an African Express flight) I waited for the security guard to avert her eyes and then walked purposefully toward the gate, water in hand. Another guard watched this all happen, and she smiled as I passed.
When boarding flights, most gates at JKIA don't use jetways. I'll confess I don't know exactly why this is. (The Europe-bound flights on Emirates, BA, KLM and other major carriers use jetways, as Delta probably would have.) Instead, on seemingly all Africa-bound flights, you walk down a long ramp onto the tarmac, where you might see 10-15 planes with their engines running and doors open. For a few seconds, you're not sure where to go.
In those brief moments I've often dreamed of skipping my flight to Khartoum or Addis and finding the flight to the Seychelles instead. Eventually, however, an airport agent appears and directs people to their plane, so you see these lines of dazed-looking passengers trooping along the tarmac toward what they hope is their flight.
Finally, we can't forget the ridiculous incident in June 2006, when two "Armenian brothers" with shadowy links to President Mwai Kibaki's government barged into the baggage claim area and prevented customs from inspecting nine suitcases owned by a female friend who'd flown in from Dubai. (It was later determined that the men weren't brothers, and might actually have been Russian, but I digress.) As Corriere Della Sera reported, "One of the two brothers produced a pistol and then the pair took the woman by the arm, seized the suitcases and marched off with a shout of 'You don’t know who we are.'"
Security has been ramped up since then, but all of this can't make the folks at TSA very comfortable. While it's not clear what exactly they're concerned about, there are obviously some issues to choose from.
It's bad news for Delta, which is desperately looking for new markets to stave off financial troubles. Most of the passengers booked on Atlanta-Nairobi were rebooked on KLM through Amsterdam, while others were rerouted on Air France and Kenya Airways flights. Some folks, though, will apparently have to spend tonight in Johannesburg. Now that's a really nice airport.