Anyone who does business in our region understands how important Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is as a travel hub. Friends in Kampala and Dar talk ruefully about ‘having to go through Nairobi’ to make connections East and West. But JKIA faces growing competition. Addis Airport is home to the wide-ranging Ethiopian Airways fleet. Rwandair now flies to the US from Kigali. Gulf State airlines all offer hubs where the passenger experience has been walked through (and thought through) again and again.
JKIA looks good from a distance, but delivers a disconnected passenger experience. I’ve just flown to London on Kenya Airways, an airline whose staff and management are pulling the brand up by its bootstraps for the third time. I flew the Dreamliner and the scheduling was perfect – arriving in London at 3.30pm. The 9.30 am departure avoids a really early start, and misses the early morning rush at JKIA – so should be stress free.
And it would be, without the combined efforts of three public sector bodies. All of whom project their ‘don’t care’ cultures onto passengers, creating a lasting impression.Arrive at 7.00 am and you share the initial queue for security screening with upwards of 200 airport workers, who have just arrived by bus. I don’t mind queueing and I enjoy the good humoured company of Kenyans. But groups of departing tourists and several business travellers were clearly unsettled. A smart Ghanaian said to me ‘I have never seen anything like this, anywhere’. Presiding over this egalitarian conga was a Kenya Airports Authority matriarch, arms firmly crossed. I enquired of her whether there might be a better way to do this, with a separate line for passengers … but she stared me down.
Fast forward to the second security screening inside the Terminal, carried out by the brave lads and lasses of the National Youth Service. There I saw four young heroes stand and watch as a female tourist struggled to get her bag up onto the conveyor. Intervening to help, I asked them whether it would have been nice to help the lady. They stared at me uncomprehendingly. Perhaps one brow furrowed.
After check-in, I queued at Immigration. Here the staff moved so slowly that they appeared to be working underwater. Ten minutes into the process, one swam off – leaving a queue of foreign passport holders stranded – without a word of explanation.
By the time I reached the painted sign that reads ‘Kwaheri Kenya’ I was ready to say ‘good riddance’. Fortunately, the private sector came to my aid and breakfast at Java Coffee House restored my mood.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa