22 May 2018

Kenya: Aviation Security Fears as Buildings Rise Near Airports

Security experts are raising the red flag over the mushrooming of commercial and residential buildings around airports and on flight paths, saying it poses a huge risk to air travellers and the general public.

Despite the existence of straightforward rules on construction within the vicinity of airports, many investors are disregarding them with abandon, raising fears of terrorist attacks on aeroplanes.

In 2004, questions were raised over the construction of Uchumi Hyper along Lang'ata Road, Nairobi, with claims that the structure is situated on Wilson Airport flight path funnel.

The then Kenya Association of Air Operators chief executive Col (Rtd) Eutychus Karumba Waithaka complained that the building was on the same line as the main runway of the airport and also on the approach funnel for the main runway, pointing out that the mall's parking bay could be an ideal spot if terrorists were to target a landing aircraft .

FACING RISKS

At the same time, shoppers frequenting the supermarket would be at risk in case of any accidents at the airport, he said, explaining that 90 per cent of accidents involving planes occur during landing or take-off.

But 13 years later, the building hosting the retail outlet stands tall even as the security and safety concerns still hold true. Other similar buildings around airfields in the city, are coming up fast .

Just how far from and how tall should a building near an airport or an airstrip be, so as not interfere with flight paths?

With the obvious scarcity of land in the prime areas of Nairobi, and a growing need for residential blocks of flats and offices, investors are going for highrise buildings to meet the demand, ignoring zoning bylaws.

However, different parts of the city have their specific zoning bylaws, and erecting structures to a specified height for varied reasons, is among those bylaws.

Many real estate developers around South C, a relatively affluent neighbourhood near the city centre, are flouting the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) Act of 2013 and erecting buildings deemed dangerously too tall and which in many instances interfere with flight paths.

MUHOHO AVENUE

Because it straddles the area around the airstrip, aviation experts say that for safety, buildings in the largely residential estate ought to be at most four stories tall.

Along Muhoho Avenue in the neighbourhood, a new building, still under construction, towers above its surroundings. The building, now 10 stories tall, and still unfinished, is set to host residential flats upon its completion.

Around it are more tall buildings; some complete and occupied and others under construction, posing a threat to planes landing into or flying out of Wilson Airport airport just a few kilometres away.

A resident, living in South C's Belle Vue area points out that if this trend goes on unchecked, it will get out of hand and soon the airport will be at the centre of concrete jungle.

"Just by watching the planes flying in the area, one gets the feeling that they really are battling to manoeuvre through the tall buildings, which have infringed into their pathways and still stay on their flight paths," he says.

He adds that in case a plane suddenly developed mechanical problems while above the buildings, it could prove disastrous.

UNDER PRESSURE

Further along Popo Road in the same neighbourhood, a six-storey building is under construction, while workers at a neighbouring structure are knocking down storeys above the sixth level, under pressure to heed building regulations.

Wilson Airport, which lies only three kilometres away from the area, was built in early 1930s and is therefore was older than probably all the surrounding buildings.

Although its small and mainly handles light aircraft, it is among the busiest airports in the region in terms of air traffic, with domestic flights comprising 90 percent of the flights while international ones account for only 10 per cent.

The danger and safety fears are highlighted by the fact that the airport, is the main training terminal for pilots.

Security expert George Musamali says the sprouting of many high-rise buildings on flight paths continue unabated even though the law is clear that buildings in such areas should not be more than four stories high.

SECURITY RISK

He says that the buildings are a security risk since terrorists could use them to launch attacks on aircraft, adding that the situation is made worse by the fact the occupants of the buildings are unknown because of weak tenancy laws.

"We have talked about such buildings for many years as they are security and safety hazards to both aircraft and the people living in them but no one is taking it seriously. Terrorists can hide in and use them to launch missiles just like in the case of Kikambala where an Israeli aircraft was attacked," says Mr Musamali.

He blames KCAA for laxity and failing in its mandate to secure the airspace in Kenya by reining in on private developers who wilfully turn a blind eye to security and standards concerns.

Mr Musamali points out tall buildings in the heavily populated Utawala Area in Embakasi, South C and around Taj Mall building, which he says is on a flight path that poses a direct risk to aircraft using the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

"People by design ignore this because everything is shrouded in politics in this country as there are some who are immune to the dictums of the law in the country. It is going to be a disaster if this is not reined upon," he says.

PRIVATE DEVELOPERS

But in a rejoinder, KCAA director general Gilbert Kibe says estates such as South B, South C, and Nairobi West fall along Wilson Airport's flight path and there are laws guiding on how high one can build .

"There are different heights and distance allowed depending on how far the building is from the runway and the approach path. A building could be quite tall if it is far from an airport and short if it is near it. There are places where one isn't supposed to erect a building," says Captain Kibe. He, however, acknowledges that there are private developers who disobey the agency's laws on building approvals.

He says private developers hide under the pretext of having obtained clearance from the Nairobi County Inspectorate Department, which he accuses of not taking KCAA laws seriously. He adds that the county rarely consults the agency before giving approvals.

"Most of the developers do not come to us to ask for authorisation to put up the buildings, claiming that they have approvals from the city inspectorate. They hardly ever take us seriously and so we have to look for other means to stop such constructions," he says .

The authority's boss also explains that when they go to court to obtain an order compelling unauthorised buildings to be demolished, the court imposes judicial injunctions.

Kenya

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