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June 03, 2009

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.


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good points about the mingling of passengers (arrival/departures - often separated by out-streched hands of airport workers), the confusion over which plane to board (no stoaway stories yet?), the proximity of the car parking to the domestic aircraft (only seprated by a simple fence), VIP passes issued to Artur-types.

- Wiuth construction of the new terminal far from over, I fear that the only way Delta will be granted the go ahead is by making the airport a lot more secure (hostile) against (we) the locals or imposed El-Al style rules when Delta is on-site


I have blogged about the problems at JKIA (& made suggestions to solve these problems) but it seems that the entrenched interests (the fine-takers, et al) are all too powerful...

Case in point is the re-appointment of airport sleaze a george muhoho-ho-ho as the head of Kenya's airports... Grease just oozes out of him...


As a Kenyan whos has been through JFK and the atlanta airport,I quite agree with Mr.Bengali that relative to these two airports JKIA's security is lax.
Bengali mentioned a point that is at the heart of the problem;one of the most annoying tendencies of Kenyan officials is the way foreigners and anybody with money are favored.Thorough searches like the ones you see at US and other international airports are simply not done for fear of annoying "our guests".
As a business person with interests of doing business with the US,this is another lost opportunity.

Account Deleted



Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.
You are really something.

Kersi Rustomji

Wake up Kenya if you want to join international world

rs money

For this matter, once I discussed with one of my friends, not only about the content you talked about, but also to how to improve and develop, but no results. So I am deeply moved by what you said today.

theodoto ressa

I agree with Mr. Bengali, JKIA is a total mess. If you are a disabled, oh my God! you are doomed. Unless it is KLM and other renown flights, you have to walk on the tarmac/ wheeled to the plane, dodge tractors hauling luggage and taxi masquerading as passengers, wait for a few young men and women to carry you on board...Because some hallways are inaccessible to wheelchair users, you have to go through some dingy corridors- you count yourself lucky if you emerge a live at the end of the hallway. I am telling you we have a long way to correct the mess at JKIA. It is just a filth that needs a system overhaul.
By Theodoto Ressa
Ohio, USA


this JKIA saga explains why there is poverty in Kenya. JKIA is our gateway - tourism is our best source of income - yet we have a filthy airport and are arguing with our customers.

Same goes for mombasa road and the railway those are the most important pieces of infrastructure - the railway has never been improved since it was built the highway is basically a residential street.

and we talk about poverty do we really have to wait for a WB grant, or EU grant to be fix this things ?

Hugh Allen

I travel through JKA once a month and it's NOT the horror story presented here. It could do with a face lift and more space for departing passengers, but it's as secure as most airports I use in Europe although not, I will admit, as hair-trigger paranoid as most US airports. It is also a whole lot more pleasant than Delta's terminal in JFK which is, from a passenger's point of view, hell on earth and where the chaos at the boarding gates and the general slovenliness of the staff is worse than most airports in Africa. And, in 39 years of travelling through JKA I have never once witnessed a cop on the take. I know it happens, but it's not as in-your-face as implied by the professional grumbler who wrote this article.

winga j

sure jkia is not the best airport in the world, or africa for that matter.
but this article is utterly biased.
in all my years i have never faced a stinking jkia
on the tarmac there are clearly marked passenger walk ways and airline staff guiding the sameto respective flights.true jkia is old school with departing and arriving passengers mingling( exchanging bombs and the duty free area?)and congestion during peaks- these are infrustrucral issues that i bet the airport authority is adress via expansion etc.
and if you think jkia has inadequate security try doing something stupid like declaring you are a terrorist et al...i doubt if you will make to guest of state status.
you see, after state house and military sites jkia is the most secure in the country.and while we are at it, show me an airline in the world that does not expirience delays and cancelletions? even your beloved klm and delta.
all in all there is a reason why we have 1st world to 5th world

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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