Kenyan businesses hope for airport's swift return to normal

Business operators in Kenya were optimistic Wednesday for a swift return to normal operations at the country's main international airport after it was ravaged by fire.

Passenger flights have either been cancelled or diverted, mostly to the coastal city of Mombasa, but international flights were due to land again in Nairobi on Thursday morning, using a domestic terminal undamaged in the fire.

Cargo operations were only halted for some 12 hours, so the impact on Kenyan exporters should be limited.

In addition, while Nairobi is a key regional airport, 18 airlines fly direct to Mombasa from Europe, so tourists heading straight for Kenya's white sand beaches will not be affected by the fire.

Flights from Nairobi to Mombasa, Kenya's second city and an international airport, were ferrying passengers stranded by the fire for onwards flights outside the country.

Many passengers change planes in Nairobi, as do the ever-larger numbers of tourists coming in from Asia, as well as the vast majority of those visiting for wildlife safaris.

Nairobi also remains a hub for travellers heading elsewhere in the region, such as those on their way to track mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda.

"This is the busiest time of year for international flights," said Duncan Muriuki, head of Destination Africa, a tour operator.

"We have people stuck in Mombasa so it will definitely impact us negatively," he said, adding that clients stuck at the coast would face journeys of several hours to travel by road to the capital.

"It has to be got back to normal, they can make adjustments," he said.

International terminals at Jomo Kenya International Airport were gutted, but neither the runway or domestic terminal were damaged.

Domestic and cargo flights resumed early on Wednesday evening, while at least two flights from Kenya Airways were due to land as scheduled in Nairobi on Thursday morning.

Nairobi's other airport, Wilson, handles mostly domestic flights to game parks and beaches.

It has little infrastructure and would be ill-equipped to handle large numbers of additional passengers.

Among the hardest hit by any incidents at JKIA are Kenya's flower producers.

Kenya exported 122,000 tons of cut flowers in 2012, accounting for 1.6% of the east African nation's GDP.

While that contribution is relatively modest, due largely to tax loopholes, the sector is a big employer, with half a million Kenyans estimated to depend on flower farming for their livelihood.

Any delay in shipping out fragile lilies and roses would result in big losses.

Jane Ngige, who heads the Kenya Flower Council, warned that if the situation was not resolved swiftly the sector "would be one of the hardest hit by the airport crisis".

However, Ngige said cargo handlers had been able to store produce delivered to the airport despite the fire.

Harvesting at flower farms had been halted Wednesday while the trade association waited for more information, she said.