International flights resume at Nairobi after fire

International flights resumed at Nairobi airport on Thursday for the first time since a huge fire gutted the arrivals terminal, causing widespread chaos and delays.

Wednesday's blaze forced the cancellation or diversion of scores of flights at east Africa's biggest transport hub.

Using the domestic terminal for passengers instead of the fire-damaged international hall, Kenya Airways flights from London and Bangkok were the first to land safely early Thursday, said Eric Kiraithe, head of security at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

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The Kenyan carrier also announced flights coming in from or leaving for African, European and Asian destinations while the government said other international airlines will be allowed to operate from midnight Thursday.

Lines of travellers, muffled up in sweaters for Nairobi's cold season, sat next to their luggage trolleys piled high with bags.

Some had arrived at the airport well before dawn and were starting to show signs of frustration, coming forward, tickets in hand, to ask officials about when they might be likely to check-in.

But most of those delayed appeared resigned rather than angry.

"From midnight today we are opening up the airport to full operations," Transport and Infrastructure Minister Michael Kamau told journalists at the airport.

Pristine white tents have been set up, complete with tables and yellow-frilled tablecloths, to serve as a makeshift immigration area.

Kamau said a temporary terminal will be set up in the coming days to bridge the gap until terminal 4, currently under construction and scheduled for completion in March 2014, is ready.

Questioned as to why the government and security forces have said nothing about the possible causes of the fire, Kamau repeated "Let us not speculate".

He said the site of the blaze has been completely roped off and that the authorities had not yet been able to assess the amount of damage caused.

Kamau rejected criticism that the response to the fire has been painfully slow and claims that fire hydrants had failed to function, meaning that extra water for firefighters had had to be trucked in.

Kenya's media were however united in criticising what they said was a slow response, and warned the airport would need major building work until it could be returned to normal.

The Standard newspaper accused the emergency services of being caught unprepared and calling the delay in tackling the blaze "inexcusable".

The Star warned the fire may cause a "lack of trust and confidence" in the future among passengers.

Cargo and domestic flights out of the Kenyan capital had resumed on Wednesday evening.

The fierce fire, which started before dawn on Wednesday, took around four hours to bring under control.

The interior ministry was forced to issue public appeals for Nairobi's notoriously congested traffic to give way to trucks ferrying water to the airport after firefighters tackling the blaze ran "dangerously" low on water.

Some 16,000 passengers usually transit through JKIA every day, according to official figures.

The airport is a regional hub for east Africa, with many long-distance international flights landing there to connect to countries across the region.

There were no casualties in the fire but two people -- an airport worker and a passenger -- were taken to hospital for smoke inhalation.

August is one of Kenya's busiest months for tourism, a key industry for the country, as foreign travellers fly in to see its wildlife and enjoy the white sand beaches on its Indian Ocean coast.

The airport offers direct connections to Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and other African cities.

by Daniel WESANGULA © 2013 AFP

Source: AFP
Date: Aug 8, 2013