Involve aviation sector in JKIA reforms, pilots tell CS Murkomen

Transport CS Kipchumba Murkomen is shown part of the roof at the International Departures at JKIA that was under renovation on November 15, 2022, when he toured the airport. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The recent announcement by the Transport Ministry that it plans to build a new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport may have been a welcome idea considering the state of the current facilities.

However, it has also been met with criticism, with pilots noting that the plans appear unilateral and may fail to address the challenges that the users of the airport face. Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen said the government plans to build a new terminal at JKIA that should be ready for use within three years.

The CS said the terminal would be constructed through public public-private partnership (PPP) model, where private sector players would design, finance and construct the new terminal.

He stated the State is ready to start the tender process which will lead to the selection of the firm that will construct the terminal next month.

“Hopefully by June, we can get the relevant contractor so that in the next three years we have a completely new airport,” Murkomen had said. He was speaking at the Senate where he had appeared to give an account of the status of transport facilities in the country. 

A new terminal has been in the making for years, with the current facilities at JKIA overstretched. Last year, the airport handled 10.24 million passengers, despite having the capacity for about six million passengers, resulting in congestion during certain times of the day when passenger traffic goes up.

The government had in 2013 broken ground for the Sh56 billion Greenfield Terminal at JKIA which would have had the capacity to handle 20 million passengers but cancelled it in 2016. At the time, the State said, this was due to a shortage of funds as well as arguments that the project cost was too high for it to be commercially viable.

Timeline proposed

While JKIA is in dire need of investments including on the old terminals - perhaps as a matter of urgency, for some players however, the timeline proposed by Murkomen for a new terminal appears too short.

There are now concerns that the new terminal could be rushed and might be built without input from aviation industry players as well as sectors that are heavily reliant on the airport such as agriculture and tourism.

“We have to get it right from the onset at the design stage, otherwise the new terminal will end up with the same challenges that we are experiencing at the moment within a few years,” said Mwenda Mabura, an Executive Council Member of the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa).

He said the national carrier Kenya Airways should have special considerations when expanding the airport.

“What we need to do is build a brand new terminal that will host the national carrier and then linear to it, have a new runway that is between four to five kilometres that can cater for larger aircraft and future demand.”

“A five-kilometre runway would help JKIA avoid legacy issues that have dogged airports in Europe that are experiencing difficulties trying to expand. Parallel to the passenger terminal and the runway, we should have a new KQ cargo terminal.”

Mabura who is also a pilot and aeronautical engineer, noted that while both the old and new runways can be used for takeoff and landing, JKIA should use the old runway for landing while the new one should be for takeoff.

“The old runway can ideally be used as a landing runway so that when aircraft land, they roll to the new terminal and take the shortest distance to the new runway, which should ideally be for takeoff,” he said, emphasising that whatever the case, JKIA needed another runway to handle larger aircraft and also for emergency purposes.

“If one runway is blocked, the other one will remain open. We can avoid scenarios where we have had cancellations, delays and diverting aircraft to other airports which can be expensive for an airline as every time this happens, it has to cater for hotel accommodation for its customers and get another crew for diverted aircraft back to JKIA when operations normalise.”

“It should not just be a terminal, we would rather build a terminal, a runway and a cargo terminal. A large cargo centre can have speciality areas to accommodate the needs of industries such as fresh produce and pharmaceutical products.”

He said not just pilots but other aviation industry professionals who are the users of the airport as well as industries that heavily rely on the airport for their operations such as agriculture, tourism and pharmaceutical industries needed to be involved at the inception of the new terminal.

“This will ensure that the design meets the current and future needs, such a facility also needs to be able to absorb shocks in future. This way we will not be caught flat-footed like we were in 2020 when Covid-19 broke out,” said Mabura.

“We should also draw on the expertise of Kenyans in the diaspora. We have Kenyans working for major aviation sector organisations such as Boeing, General Electric (GE), IATA and other carriers. Many of them have in the past expressed willingness to participate and add value to major developments in the country.”

The government has been exploring the possibility of increasing private sector participation in building mega infrastructure projects. While several projects have successfully been delivered through the PPP model, including the Nairobi Expressway, these remain few and far between.

The slow progress in onboarding private capital in projects, especially transport infrastructure, has been attributed to a legal framework that has been blamed for winding processes.

The CS, while talking to the Senators, noted that the new terminal would be constructed through the PPP model while the pilot’s lobby noted that the State should accord the PPP opportunity to Kenyans.

“Kenyans should be given the priority to own or finance the new terminal and runway through a diaspora dollar infrastructure bond that can be issued and strictly controlled so that you can only withdraw money to undertake the project,” said Mabura.

“This will give ownership to Kenyans, especially in the diaspora. They will see their investment when they leave and when they come. When they are invested they will be more loyal to the brand.”

JKIA, a key aviation hub for the region, has in recent months exhibited signs that it is due for a major makeover.

Other than the congestion experienced during peak hours, there have been concerns about such amenities as backup electricity sources. The airport was plunged into darkness last August when there was a nationwide blackout.