How can a 4.8km airport runway cost a whopping $351.8 million? This is the question in the minds of many Kenyans after the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) revived plans to construct a second runway at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
There are good reasons why Kenyans are astonished. Put in perspective, the amount which translates into spending more than $73 million per km (including related costs) on the runway, is more than what Kenya invested in the 50km Nairobi-Thika superhighway, which cost $256 million.
The amount also only falls shy of the $370 million the country spent on the Olkaria IV power project that added 140MW of power to the national grid, and equals the $350 million being invested in the new 458km Nairobi-Mombasa pipeline.
While there is no doubt the JKIA airfield expansion project may seem mindboggling, engineering experts contend the cost is proportional not only to its importance but also the level of engineering works involved (particularly for a modern runway).
More so, that it is being constructed adjacent to an existing runway of a functional airport complicates matters.
“Runways by nature are expensive to build because they must not only guarantee the safety of aeroplanes but must also be able to withstand the weight of the planes,” Britech Consulting Engineers chief executive Peter Scott told The EastAfrican.
He added that building a runway involves digging down as much as three metres and replacing the soil with blasted rock, course gravel, fine gravel, sand and then concrete slabs and asphalt to create a firm foundation.
Rising passenger and cargo demand
Kenya has for years been planning the construction of a second runway at JKIA to ease the pressure on the existing one, and ensure the airport meets rising passenger and cargo demand as well as maintaining its position as a regional aviation transportation hub.
While the idea was first conceived in 2010, it never took off owing to the fact that the government had committed substantial resources to the JKIA expansion project, which included the construction of the aborted $530 million Greenfield terminal.
Besides, efforts to seek financing from several development financial institutions, among them the African Development Bank (AfBD) proved futile.
The project has however been revived after AfDB expressed willingness to finance its construction although the bank’s board is yet to approve the $180 million funding for the runway.
“The government has applied for financing from AfDB towards the cost of JKIA airport second runway development, and intends to use part of the funds to make payments under the contract for monitoring and valuation and technical audit consultancy services,” said KAA in a statement.
KAA is seeking a consultant to carry out an assessment of the impact the project will have on increased air connectivity and trade, tourism and consequent economic growth, regional integration, climate change, air quality, noise monitoring and whether it will provide value for money.
But even before ascertaining its viability, KAA reckons investing in a new runway is critical for Kenya’s main airport, whose passenger and cargo turnover is projected to maintain a steady growth.
The authority, however, remains non-committal on the project, appointed to avoid jeopardising negotiations with AfDB.
“KAA does not want to comment on the project because we are still in negotiations with the AfBD,” said corporate communications manager Angela Tilitei.
Constructed in 1978 to serve about 2.5 million passengers per year, the capacity of JKIA has been increasing over the years and currently stands at 7.5 million passengers.
It is projected to rise to 12 million by 2025. The volume of cargo handled at the airport has also increased significantly to over 20 million tonnes currently.
In deciding to revive the second runway project, KAA wants a facility that can handle the new generation extra wide bodied aircraft like the Airbus A380 and Boeing B747-800, making JKIA attractive to airlines flying into East Africa.
Important regional hub
JKIA is an important regional hub being the third largest in Africa, going by the number of arrivals and departures, which stand at 128 and 130 respectively.
Only OR Tambo International Airport in South Africa and Cairo International Airport in Egypt have more arrivals and departures than JKIA.
JKIA is, however, facing stiff competition from Bole International Airport in Ethiopia, which handles 109 arrival and 105 departures, and Kigali International Airport in Rwanda which was early this year ranked second best airport in Africa and best in East Africa by Canadian travel and hospitality firm Sleeping Airports.
Kenya is also buoyed by JKIA attaining the Category One status that will allow direct flights to the US.
Other projects that have generated controversy include London Heathrow Airport runway project, where the UK intends to spend $23 billion to construct a third runway — the project is being opposed by environmentalists; and in Tanzania, the government is set to spend $48 million in expanding the Tanga airport runway from the current 1.6 km to 2.5km.