One of Kenya’s busiest aviation hubs, Wilson Airport, experienced a series of mishaps last year that resulted in the UK warning its citizens against using the facility.
It is perhaps the worst rating the airport has ever received.
The UK advisory and the mishaps at the airport forced the industry regulator, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), to act.
KCAA hastily issued a directive requiring air operators with large aircraft to move to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).
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The incidents may have, however, been expected all along. Wilson Airport has over time faced a mix of challenges, including the threat of collapsing under the weight of its success.
This, coupled with years of underinvestment and insensitive land use in the area, has left it an island amid numerous real estate developments, some of them highrise whose legality is questionable.
Wilson nearly rivals Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in terms of the number of aircraft that land and take off, even when its area is just a fraction of JKIA’s.
It remains busier than most of the other major airports that have received billions of shillings in investments, and attention from civil aviation authorities, yet they only receive a handful of flights every day.
KCAA in a recent report noted that Wilson and JKIA have experienced the highest growth in aircraft and passenger traffic, with “further growth anticipated, especially in cargo and international flights”.
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It, however, noted that the developments adjacent to the airports are a threat to the aviation sector and might hamper attempts to further improve the airports and maximise its potential. “Aerodromes are occasionally ignored during land-use planning and control (Wilson Airport is one such case),” said a recent KCAA report evaluating the status of the aviation industry.
“Some land-use features are so close to the aerodrome grounds that sections of the aviation functions cannot be fully utilised. The implications are potential safety risks to the land users as well as the aircraft.”
The report evaluates the civil aviation industry and its growth projections as well as needs over the next decade. The plan contains aspects that have an impact on the environment and the authority has submitted the masterplan to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) for approval.
The report indicates that Wilson handled 99,400 aircraft last year - which is massive for its size and in comparison with JKIA that handled 114,000.
Other larger airports are handling fewer planes, with the Moi International Airport Mombasa, for instance, handling 28,000 planes in the period to June 2019, according to KCAA.
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Moi International Airport had the benefit of handling large aircraft and hence beats Wilson in terms of passenger numbers, which reached 1.55 million compared to 660,000 at Wilson, which hosts small planes.
JKIA handled 8.12 million passengers in the period to June 2019.
The number of planes handled at Wilson is also much higher than those of Malindi (12,981), Kisumu (11,255) and Eldoret (9,118).
Despite the three airports having the ‘international’ status and with the equipment and staff befitting that, Wilson still outdid them in terms of passenger numbers - at 660,000, compared to 505,000 in Kisumu, 262, 000 (Eldoret) and 181,000 (Malindi).
The airports, especially Kisumu and Eldoret, have in the past received major investments to spruce and open them up to international traffic, but success evades them.
Kisumu Airport recently secured a Sh580 million upgrade, largely focusing on expanding its runway to enable it handle larger aircraft.
Eldoret Airport was expected to play a key role in enabling businesses, mostly agricultural, easily move their products but out of its 60,000 tonnes capacity for cargo, it is only handling 12,000 tonnes. Possibly worse in terms of idleness is Isiolo International Airport, which does not appear in the KCAA Air Masterplan.
The Isiolo airport was put up at a cost of Sh2.7 billion, commissioned in 2017 and billed as a game-changer for the economy of Isiolo and a host of neighbouring counties, including Meru, Marsabit and Laikipia.
The miraa trade, which has a big consumer base in countries such as Somalia and some Middle Eastern countries, was expected to move to the airport and use it as a base, but traders seemingly still prefer Wilson and JKIA. It has however been mostly idle, mostly used by chartered airlines and even then few.
It has in the recent past gotten repeated mentions as government ships in equipment, pesticides and personnel to fight the locust invasion but this is unlikely to increase the passenger and aircraft count, and it is only seasonal. During a stakeholder consultation phase of writing the Air Masterplan, industry players told KCAA that Wilson Airport suffers many misfortunes.
Other than landowners who have objected the controlled use of their land, the airlines have to some extent abused the airport, bringing large planes that easily overshoot the runways meant for smaller aircraft.
“Wilson is meant for smaller aircraft. However, some larger aircraft being allowed to operate from Wilson exceed the design limits of the airport pavements and handling capacity, therefore, posing a safety risk,” reports KCAA, citing stakeholder submissions.
“Land encroachment at Wilson Airport is a safety hazard, high buildings in the vicinity of the airport which is also used for training students.”
Other challenges include the ban on miraa by Somalia in 2016.A decade ago, the airport handled upwards of 6,000 tonnes of cargo, but this reduced to about 3,000 last year.