Nairobi airport reopens to international flights after terminal fire

Kenya's largest airport saw some international flights resume Thursday. But the charred remains of the arrivals terminal continued to cause problems for daily operations.

Sayyid Azim/AP
Firefighters and airport officials view the damage caused by a fire at the international arrivals area of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. A massive fire destroyed the arrivals hall at Kenya's main international airport early Wednesday, forcing the closure of East Africa's largest airport and the rerouting of all inbound flights.

Some international flights resumed at Nairobi's main airport on Thursday, but visitors complained and vital air cargo was blocked underlining fears that fire damage could threaten its role as Kenya's key transport hub.

Fire swept through Kenya's main Jomo Kenyatta International Airport early on Wednesday and forced a day-long shut down. The blackened shell of the arrivals building continued to smoulder on Thursday as white smoke drifted into the air.

Investigators say it is too early to ascertain the cause of the fire, though they have ruled out terrorism, and officials say they will build a makeshift international arrivals terminal within days.

"What is key is the speed at which this is normalised. If they can pull a rabbit out of the hat and get international flights moving they may bail themselves out," said Aly Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based analyst.

"If this drags on it's going to damage Nairobi's regional hub status."

The fire, which destroyed a large part of the international departures section, was a blow to Kenya at the start of the peak tourism season. The airport was operating at more than twice its 2.5 million passenger capacity.

Kenya's horticulture industry, a major foreign exchange earner for east Africa's biggest economy, said it was preparing for possible losses after cargo planes were grounded.

"We still haven't flown any produce out. We are waiting to see what rolls out today. In the meantime, (we are trying) not to bring any more produce out until we see what happens," Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of exporters association Kenya Flower Council, told Reuters.

While construction workers worked on a new terminal at the airport, which will not be finished for months, white tents were erected outside the domestic flights terminal to try to cope with an influx of international travelers.

Some of the challenges facing Kenya were underscored by angry passengers who were at the airport early on Thursday when the first international flight landed from Bangkok.

"There is no info," said Jonathan Cross, a British tourist flying with Ethiopian Airlines. "I was expecting there would still be delays but I was expecting at least someone to be here to give us information."

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