Hundreds of travellers were stranded for hours at Nairobi airport Wednesday, and some were treated for tear gas exposure, as striking workers and police faced off at East Africa’s busiest air traffic hub.
While departing planes were grounded from midnight onwards, some incoming flights to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) were rerouted to runways elsewhere in Kenya, even Tanzania, in a protest the government described as illegal, even “sabotage”.
There were tense moments in the morning when baton-wielding police in riot helmets squared up to striking ground workers at JKIA and fired tear gas even as hundreds of anxious and frustrated travellers amassed in the terminals waiting for information about their flights.
Several strikers and would-be travellers were treated on-site for exposure to the blinding, choking spray, and others for minor injuries sustained in the chaos that ensued as they tried to escape the fumes.
Stranded passenger Deborah, destined for Addis Ababa, voiced the bewilderment of many: “I am upset, why should there be tear gas at the airport with police chasing people like criminals. This is very dangerous for travellers because this is an international airport. It is a shame to say the least.”
A water cannon was seen arriving at the airport, but was not put to use.
By late morning, officials advised would-be passengers not to come to JKIA — East Africa’s second busiest airport according to the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA).
Police asked those already there to go outside, where they stood and sat around for hours in parking and waiting areas, seeking out whatever shade they could find.
Soldiers were brought in to help with passenger scanning, as Kenya Airways staff and security personnel also took over strikers’ duties.
As the strike passed the 12-hour mark, the situation at the airport calmed somewhat as the first plane — destined for Mumbai — took off around lunchtime.
By late afternoon, Kenya Airways said most of its affected departing flights had been rescheduled and should leave before midnight.
– Job loss fears –
A KAA statement added: “flight operations at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport are steadily normalising,” though it advised would-be travellers to contact their airlines or travel agents for information.
Marie Cynthia, making her way home to Cameroon after a meeting in Nairobi, described the situation as “total chaos”.
“It has taken a whole morning and afternoon it is now they are telling us the Douala flight has been cancelled. That is a big joke because no one is telling us when it will be available.”
Elvis Kirwa, scheduled to fly to Seychelles, said passengers were frustrated.
“As you can see… mothers and their children are crying and there are even sick people, yet there is no provision for even a bottle of water. There is no formal communication and we don’t know what’s happening.”
Airport workers aligned to the Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KAWU), are angry about the planned partial takeover of the airport, operated by state-run KAA, by national carrier Kenya Airways.
Transport Minister James Macharia told journalists that workers need not worry about the possible change of ownership.
“What they were fearing is that the proposed merger between KQ (the acronym for Kenya Airways) and KAA will result in job losses but we gave assurances that that will not happen,” he said.
– Sabotage –
“This strike is illegal,” added the minister. “It is sabotage and amounts to a criminal activity that must be punished. That is why the union officials have been arrested for inciting workers to go on strike.”
Among them was KAWU chief Moss Ndiema.
Kenya’s Employment and Labour Relations Court, in an urgent application filed by Kenya Airways, ordered the strike suspended late Wednesday, pending a hearing on the dispute Thursday.
According to the KAA, more than 7.6 million passengers and 313,000 tons of cargo passed through JKIA in more than 111,000 aircraft movements in 2017.
The airport contributes just over five percent to Kenya’s gross domestic product.
Operations at Kenya’s two other main airports, at Mombasa in the southeast and Kisumu in the west, have also been affected, though the exten