Kenya , the most successful country in sub Saharan East and Central Africa, alternates between generating feelings of hope, elation, despair and "Oh, no, not again " in quick succession. It has long been thus.
Now we have seen the almost total destruction by fire of Nairobi Airport's arrivals terminal. The layout and design of the passenger buildings is vintage 1970's French / CDG 1, with an outer semicircle of 3 terminals or units (with a 4th which has been approaching completion for at least the last 18 months) to be added. These cater for all departures handling and processing, including checkin, immigration, baggage movement, airside shops (most recently cleared to de-clutter the place) and a couple of cafes. Arriving passengers,- who are not segregated from those departing or in transit ,- also initially enter this semi circle. Domestic passengers also retrieve their baggage in the one dedicated to internal services. International passengers proceed across one of two bridges which lead to an entirely separate arrivals building on the other side of the airport's main roadway. This housed baggage retrieval,immigration,customs, the arrivals concourse, car hire , hotel and other counters plus two banks and some cash machines.
It was the central arivals building that burned down. There was much less damage other than smoke in the outer semi circle.
The cause of the fire is so far unknown . It could range anywhere from carelessness to sabotage/arson. Almost certainly there was no element of terrorism.
The cause of the damage and the building being totally gutted is different. The fire, which seems to have started as one or two small conflagrations should have been quickly put out long before it became a major problem. The failure to quickly deal with it appears to include the very slow response of the airport fire service and its shortage of water and of equipment for dealing with a building rather than an aircraft fire. The Nairobi city fire brigade was it seems absent due to a lack of fire engines. The first responders are reported to have done a good job in securing the contents of the banks but not the arriving passengers bags or anything much else.
That's the despair part.
Against this background it might have been expected that getting the airport back into business would be a long slow process. Any delay, especially at the height of Kenya's tourist season, would have been serious for the nation's economy and particularly so for Kenya Airways for whom 6th freedom transit hubbing business is a vital ingredient. In fact , thanks to quick thinking, decisive planning and action the recovery was amazingly swift. It was a real feat of "make do" logistics and leadership. Some domestic flights and nearly all of Kenya's vital fruit, vegetable and flowers cargo operations were back in business the same day. International services progressively built back to 100% operation within 5 days. Improvisation ruled. Tents and the cargo and VIP terminals were all pressed into service. Staff rose to the needs of the occasion with enthusiasm and determination. A crisis can achieve wonders.
That's the hope and elation part.
There has to be a silver lining to all this.
The fourth satellite, -dedicated to Kenya Airways,- now has to be finished without further ado. The remains of arrivals building have to be knocked down and a new, well designed and high quality replacement has to be fast tracked to take its place. In the meantime the hotch potch of temporary arrangements have to be refined to take care of at least the next 18-24 months. Then there is the proposed entirely new Kenya Airways and Skyteam new terminal on the other side of the ramp to the existing semi-circle. This has needed fully defining and expediting from the beginning (about 2 years ago). It has also to be a high quality modern building designed to ensure seamless hubbing for years to come. Perhaps the focus the airport is now getting and its importance to the national economy will mean that it will be fasttracked, funds obtained, allocated and monitored every inch of the way to project delivery. There can be no delays. That is the only way to secure Nairobi's role as sub Saharan Africa's pivotal hub , a role keenly contested and coveted by neighbouring but slightly less well geographically placed Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Airlines.
There should be no hiding place for anyone in Kenya who in any manner gets in the way of moving the nation's primary airport from the 1970s to the 21st century. The fire has been a short term near disaster but its legacy could be something very different.
That would be the success part.