Hundreds of travellers were stranded at Nairobi’s international airport Wednesday as riot police deployed and teargas was fired to disperse striking workers.
With flights grounded since midnight, passengers were advised Wednesday morning not to come to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) — East Africa’s busiest according to the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) — until further notice.
“Kenya Airways regrettably wishes to inform its customers and the general public that due to the illegal strike by Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KUWA), the airline will be experiencing disruptions in normal flight operations,” a company statement said.
Inside the terminals, strikers faced off with police who fired teargas as they moved in to arrest union officials they accused of inciting workers.
Passengers waiting for flights, some for hours, were asked to leave the airport and gathered in parking and waiting areas outside the building.
“I have been here since 3:00 am, and there is no flight, there is no information, we have just been told now to wait for communication,” stranded passenger Mercy Mwai told AFP.
Another, Christine, questioned: “why are police using unnecessary force with teargas at an airport?”
Some passengers received medical treatment on-site for tear gas inhalation, according to an AFP journalist at the airport.
The workers, who had not announced their labour action beforehand, are angry about the planned takeover of the airport, operated by the state-run KAA, by national carrier Kenya Airways.
But Transport Minister James Macharia said workers need not worry.
“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 told journalists at the airport, and promised flights will resume shortly.
“So this (strike) is completely uncalled for because the deal has not happened.”
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.
Kenya Airways chief executive Sebastian Mikosz said 24 departing flights, and two arrivals, were affected by the strike, but “we expect the situation to normalise during the day.”
“We are set to resume operations, although the process is a bit slow,” he said. “Our flights to London, Dubai, and Mumbai will be departing shortly.”