Saturday, 17 September 2016

New-look JKIA Promises a better image for Kenya

By Prof. Makau Mutua
For decades, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – the region’s air transport busiest hub – was a disgrace. It was a dinky airport with dim lights and a putrid stench. The toilets were broken and didn’t have running water.
Human excrement and urine forbade one from venturing into the toilets. In hot weather, the stench could knock you off your feet. The immigration kiosks looked like ramshackle police checks. The one miserable baggage conveyer belt creaked with every turn after an interminable wait for your bag.
Then you dreaded the forlorn customs agent who was always ready to shake you down. This was your first impression as you entered Kenya. They say you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
 Matters weren’t much better as departed the country through JKIA. The entry point for departing passengers – before security – was always disorganized. People would shove and push. Others would rudely cut in line.
The lone and sad looking agent would demand a passport or ticket, or both, and then barely look at them once you produced them. He would waive you towards a dilapidated luggage screening machine with an x-ray for your person. I am sure that machine couldn’t detect a thing – it looked completely obsolete. The x-ray body machine was no better. It barely registered a protest most of the time. No one should wonder why US authorities refused to grant Kenya direct flights from America.
I am pleased to report that things have gotten better since last year, especially after the construction of new terminals with new departures and arrivals halls. The airport is now airy and spacious. It’s well-lit with legible modern professional signage.
The Immigration officers now sit at impressive counters with functional digital identification equipment. The screening system now has several layers and one gets the impression that – on the face of it – screeners have good equipment, and that they know what they are doing. The customs agents as you arrive still leave a lot to be desired but I think even there we have an improvement. The toilets now work and water is available. JKIA still has a long way to go, but it’s coming.
It may sound trivial to focus a whole column on an airport. But methinks airports are a window into a country. Banana republics have ramshackle airports.
 Developed countries have world class airports. That’s because air travel is one of the most important industries in modern civilisation. It’s how business and leisure are conducted. You can’t hope to be a great leisure destination if businesspersons are shaken down at the airport, or tourists have their luggage are stolen or rummaged through at your airport.
Equally worse, you can’t allow unscrupulous taxi drivers to mug visitors as they exit, or extort them with high fares. Air travel is a monster by itself – you don’t have to make it doubly unpleasant as passengers arrive, or exit, a country.
I want to recall two experiences at an African country which shall remain nameless. The country – for the avoidance of doubt – is an economic giant in terms of resources. But it has woefully mismanaged its resources through corruption. The first incident occurred on my arrival at the airport. Once we alighted from the plane, we went to the baggage claim area to pick our bags. It was over one hour before the first bag showed up. The agent with the bag made it clear he expected its owner to pay him to get the bag. Passengers grumbled but very soon virtually everyone paid to retrieve their bags. I had never seen this before.
 I was shocked and stunned. Nairobi, in spite of the stinky JKIA, looked better. The second incident took place as I was leaving the country. Typically, the drive from city center to the airport shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes.
 But it always took several hours because of traffic congestion. It was worse than Mombasa Road to JKIA. The drive was so long you would often see hapless passengers – who had drunk one too many beers – relieving themselves on the side of the road before jumping back into their vehicles.
Once at the airport, a crush of humanity awaited you in the sweltering heat. The mammoth tropical airport had no fans or air-conditioning. It was a civil war to get to the check-in counter for a boarding pass. And then another shoving match to board the plane.
Ours was a KLM flight. I remember the same people who had been savagely pushing and shoving immediately changed their demeanour and acted like civilised men and women once they reached the threshold of the plane and felt its cool air. It was at the door of the plane where Africa ended and Europe began. That’s a reality we must change

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