Kenya’s main airport resumed cargo and domestic flights and may reopen international routes tomorrow after a fire razed the arrivals terminal and shut sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-busiest air-transport hub.
State security agencies are investigating the cause of the blaze that broke out at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at about 5 a.m. and took firefighters almost five hours to contain, Transport Secretary Michael Kamau said. A unit at the airport used for domestic flights, known as Unit III, is being prepared for international flights.
“We have put in place measures now so that we can accommodate international flights,” Kamau said in an e-mailed statement. “As from tomorrow we will be preparing Unit III as an international terminal for departures and arrivals.”
JKIA, as the airport is known, serves as the main gateway for Kenya’s horticulture exports that generate 90 billion shillings ($1 billion) of foreign-exchange earnings annually. The facility has the capacity to handle 200,000 metric tons of cargo per year, including farm goods worth about $3.6 million a day, according to data from the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. The country supplies a third of the cut flowers sold in Europe.
The fire spread during a busy time for passenger traffic at the airport, Kamau said. It’s peak season for tourism in Kenya, which relies on the industry for 96 billion shillings of revenue a year, the East African nation’s second-biggest source of foreign exchange.
Passengers and staff at JKIA were evacuated and flights were diverted to other cities, Kenya Airports Authority said in a statement on its Twitter feed today. There were no casualties.
Kenya Airways Ltd., sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest airline by passengers, will resume “limited” domestic operations today after earlier suspending all flights, it said in an e-mailed statement. The company’s stock fell 0.5 percent to 9.5 shillings.
The fire broke out on the 15th anniversary of an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in which 224 people died.
“The cause of the fire is not known, as I said we are investigating,” Kamau said.
The Kenyan shilling weakened for the first time in four days, falling 0.2 percent to 87.45 per dollar by 5:12 p.m. in Nairobi, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“The shut down may have no immediate impact on the shilling because they have rescheduled flights through Mombasa and Eldoret,” John Muli, a trader with Nairobi-based African Banking Corp., said by phone. “If the shutdown is prolonged it may affect the shilling through reduced earnings from horticulture and tourism arrivals.”
The fire was “massive,” Mutea Iringo, principal secretary at the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, said in a statement posted on the ministry’s Twitter feed. “Arrivals and immigration are totally damaged.”
The Kenya Red Cross posted a photo on its Twitter feed showing the main arrivals terminal engulfed in flames, with black smoke billowing from it. A subsequent photo displayed the blackened, gutted interior of an unidentified building with part of the roof caved in. The incident led to gridlock on surrounding roads including Mombasa highway, a key link between Kenya’s port city and neighboring landlocked Uganda.
“Security has been heightened,” Interior Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku said during the press briefing. “We recognize the central role the airport plays to this economy.”
Inbound flights were re-routed to cities including Mombasa and Eldoret, in the country’s northwest, while outbound flights have been grounded since this morning, Iringo said.
JKIA handled 6.55 million passengers last year. That ranks the airport fourth behind South Africa’s OR Tambo and Cape Town International, and Murtala Muhammed International in Lagos, Nigeria, according to airport authority data.
Carriers including British Airways Plc, Emirates NBD PJSC and Air France-KLM operate flights from the airport.