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Airports upgrades has low-cost carriers renew expansion bids

Kenya is also upgrading the Lanet Airstrip into a modern airport at a cost of Sh3 billion and will cease from being an exclusive for the Kenya Defence Forces, and will be a public utility airport -Upon completion, the airport will accommodate bigger planes weighing approximately 40 to 100 tonnes for both cargo and passengers

By Steve Umidha

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to stifle air travel, major local airports and airstrips are rethinking plans to spend millions of shillings on new terminals, runways and hotels that could sit empty if demand does not return.

The Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) this year begun a year-long project to refurbish part of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, as it seeks to improve travelers’ experience while plans to expand Malindi international airport’s runway from 1.4kilometre stretch to 2.5kilometre is expected to take off anytime soon.

The Sh963 million JKIA project to upgrade terminals 1B and 1C for instance is meant to renovate departure halls to improve check-ins, retail operations as well as increase passenger flow and increase efficiency due to centralization of security screening procedures and the reallocation of available floor spaces to international departure gates.

The Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) which is undertaking the projects has subsequently closed the two terminals to pave way for the project. All flight operations previously in T1B and T1C have now been migrated to Terminal 1A and Terminal 2.

Last week the authority said it will in the next two to three weeks open the Voi-Kanga airstrip to serve Tsavo while at the same time open the coastal circuit for airlines flying passengers beyond Mombasa, Kilifi and Lamu Counties with other smaller airstrips like Nyeri, Migori, Sunuka and Kotulo in Mandera Counties among others lined up for developments.

“These upgrades are meant to not only boost tourism for foreigners but also expand our domestic tourism which has improved over the last few months despite the pandemic scourge,” said KAA’s Managing Director Alex Gitari in a speech read on his behalf by Peter Wafula, KAA’s Coastal regional manager.

Such belt-tightening measures which has seen travellers now arrive at the airport at least four hours before their flight departure time, is gradually winning approval from some local airline companies, which feel such upgrades will translate into growth opportunities for their operations.

“With convenience being created by such infrastructural upgrades we now have the opportunity to fly more routes as an airline and I believe the time is now the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding,” commented Capt. Mohammed Abdi, the Chairman of Skyward Express, a local airline.

They were speaking on Wednesday during the Nairobi-Malindi inaugural flight by the airline via Wilson airport with initial flight fares starting from Sh 3,950 (including taxes) one way and short flights connecting Malindi and Lamu at Sh 2,950.

The Nairobi-Malindi route is a popular destination for low-cost carriers with Jambo jet, Fly540, East African airline and Safarilink all using the busy route that is synonymous with tourists keen on sampling the coastal beaches. Ordinary rates are below Sh5, 000 one way.

Low cost airlines are known to perform much better in terms of profit and passenger numbers than most mainstream airlines. Between 2006 and 2009 for instance, the airline industry in Kenya saw the advent of low cost airlines with the model now popular in Kenya in other routes like Eldoret, Turkana and Kisumu fast affecting airline industry as we know it.

Emergence of low cost carrier has also influenced passengers to change their travel patterns due to better service, ability to take more vacations, ability to save on time and the ability to save on costs, this despite the existence of alternative modes of transport like the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) currently connecting Nairobi and Mombasa charging a standard fee of Sh1, 000 for regular tickets and Sh3, 000 on first class ticket holders one way.

Airlines reckon that demand for travel during this period is expected to improve after the industry was hit by layoffs, job cuts and business closures.

Domestic carriers resumed flights in mid-July after the government cleared travel while international flights were restarted on August 1.

Travel restrictions from March to July last year brought international tourism to a halt with industry analysts admitting that 2020 was essentially a lost year for tourism operators – a sector that shrunk by 5 per cent last year.

As much as $2.2 trillion is estimated to have been lost, and at least 80 percent lower profits, as many as a billion fewer travelers, and more than 100 million jobs gone.

Other closely related businesses like airlines, construction, handicrafts, catering and car rentals were drawn into a whirlpool of bankruptcy, even though some are slowly returning to operations, albeit vigilantly.

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