Storm over Sh14b upgrade of sleepy airports, airstrips

Suneka Airstrip in Kisii County. Construction works on the airport have stalled for more than two years.
The Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) has revealed plans to spend Sh14 billion to upgrade airports and airstrips across the country, even as MPs questioned the viability of some of the projects. 

According to a parliamentary committee, some of the facilities where the billions are being poured hardly record a flight in as long as a year and have remained commercially unviable, despite attracting huge tax-payers funding. 

International standards

The authority has given an outlook of their plans to expand the utilities, with the final touches on Malindi and Isiolo airports to improve them to international standards with the capacity to accommodate larger aircraft the priority. 

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Despite concerns by legislators that some of the airports and airstrips have remained grazing fields, KAA management has defended the expenditures saying it was their duty to improve the infrastructures.

In a report tabled before the National Assembly’s Transport Committee, the State said they intend to spend Sh5.7 billion on Malindi Airport to increase its capacity by strengthening and extending its runway and expanding the apron so that larger aircraft can be accommodated at the facility. 

KAA has told the parliamentary committee chaired by Pokot South MP David Pkosing that the improved apron will allow the facility to handle an extra three code ‘C’ aircraft. The funds will also be used to complete fencing, where 5.3 kilometres of its perimetre is yet to be done.  Code ‘C’ planes include some of the largest such as Boeing 737, Airbus A-320 and Embraer ERJ190-100. 

According to KAA Managing Director Jonny Andersen, the expansion will help boost tourism and enhance trade since the facility will be in a position to receive direct international flights. But it is the Sh2 billion expenditure towards expansion of the Isiolo Airport that has raised eyebrows, with MPs concerned about the viability of the facility, which local legislators claim hardly received flights despite billions having been put in so far. 

When KAA management appeared before the committee on Thursday, Isiolo County Woman Representative Rehema Jaldesa questioned the expenditure. “No flights land in this airport. Why should we continue fleecing taxpayers, pumping money in projects that have no economic value? Besides, the project does not benefit the people of Isiolo. Our people are not employed there,” she said. 

Similar concerns were raised by Sotik MP Dominic Koskei. “We should not be encouraging funding of these airports and airstrips that will only see one flight in a year. It is not prudent,” he said. 

But Andersen said they did not have control over commercial decisions of airlines to use the airstrips, saying theirs was only to provide the required infrastructure. He, however, said they have been in talks with some airlines to make use of dormant airports. 

“We have approached several of them (airlines) to fly in these airstrips and airports, including Isiolo where we have lobbied them to help promote the economy of the area. Hopefully, we can find a breakthrough,” he said, admitting that there was little activity at the newly established airport that the government is keen on promoting to international standards. 

The government had placed high premium on the now dormant airport as part of the strategy to unlock the economic potential of Northern Kenya.

The airport is constructed along the ambitious Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor, which also envisages the construction of a resort city at the semi-arid Isiolo. 

KAA revealed that key on the works to be undertaken in Isiolo is providing a new facility for passenger processing and enhancing of the East Africa transport connectivity circuit. 

Works will include expansion of the access road off the Isiolo-Meru highway, improving the apron for it to accommodate up to six Code ‘C’ aircraft, complete the pavements, taxiways and access roads. The authority has since completed the construction of a 1.4 kilometre and 30 metre wide runway, a passenger terminal, administration block and a car park. 

The rest of the Sh7 billion is to be spent on 22 airports and airstrips across the country, including some that MPs have questioned their viability.

At the Lokichogio Airport in Turkana County, Andersen said they will next week be advertising tender for rehabilitation of the runway to improve its capacity, increasing its length by 800 metres to 1.8 kilometres and a width of 30 metres. They also intend to construct a taxiway and an apron. 

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