Foreigners leave Nairobi as flights ban takes effect

Thursday, March 26th, 2020 00:00 |
Diplomats follow proceedings at a past event. Most embassies are working on how to airlift their nationals back home. Photo/PD/Kenna Claude

Eric Wainaina @EWainaina

Foreign embassies yesterday began evacuating their citizens to prevent them from being stuck in Nairobi as the government ban on international flights took effect at midnight. 

Since the announcement by Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe on foreign travel on Sunday, a number of embassies have been working with the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) and other government agencies and airlines to facilitate travel of their citizens back home.

Further, some embassies, according to sources, fear that with the apparent reluctance by Kenyans to observe strict measures outlined by the government to prevent the spread of the virus, the situation could easily get out of control and their nationals might be caught up in the mix.

There is also concern that Kenya’s hospitals were not in a position to treat large numbers of infected people in case of a major spread.

Yesterday, KCAA director-general Gilbert Kibe declined to give the specific number of flights moving out foreigners, but confirmed that most embassies had contacted the authority to organise special flights, including privately chartered flights for their nationals.

“Most embassies have been reaching out to us to organise how to ferry their nationals back home.

Some are arranging for the ordinary planes while others are chartering private ones,” Kibe told the People Daily, suggesting that there has been a marked departure of foreigners in the last few days.

Countries that are actively evacuating their nationals include the United States of America, United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Switzerland.

There was a flurry of activities at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport yesterday as hundreds of passengers whose flights had not been affected by the directive and those who had managed to organise special flights through their embassies left Nairobi before the deadline.

Kenya Airways chief executive officer Allan Kilavuka told the People Daily in a telephone interview that the airline had organised extra outward flights following requests by some embassies.

For instance, Kilavuka said, the airline    yesterday worked on three direct flights to US, UK and Europe after they were approved by the government on request by the embassies.

Last direct flight

On Sunday, when eight more cases were confirmed, Health CS Mutahi told countries wishing to evacuate their nationals to make arrangements to do so within this period after it turned out that most coronavirus cases had penetrated Nairobi through the airport.

For instance, out of the nine new cases reported on Wednesday, seven are Kenyans and three of the seven contracted the disease through close contact with those already positive while the remaining four acquired it from foreign countries affected.

Yesterday, the US embassy in Nairobi rallied its nationals who want to leave Nairobi to take advantage of the last direct flight by Kenya Airways that was scheduled to leave JKIA for John F Kennedy International Airport in New York at 9pm.

“Kenyan Airways has indicated it will offer a flight for US citizens and US Lawful Permanent Residents departing JKIA on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at 2100 hours, provided it can sell all the seats on this flight,” the embassy told its nationals.

Tony Markiewicz, a US national living in Thika, said while the cost of the ticket was high, it was a good opportunity for Americans who want to fly home.

“I am a US citizen staying here. For most of us, those prices are extremely high. However, I’m glad they are making the opportunity available. I also understand that they are flying back empty.

So, sure enough, the cost will be higher,” said Markiewicz. The cost of an economy class ticket on this flight was placed at about Sh335,000 per person one way, while a business class ticket was going for Sh400,000.

Fly back home

For Germany, hundreds of its nationals registered in their embassy in Nairobi in the past two days, asking for travel options out of Nairobi. 

Ambassador Annett Günther yesterday said several flights were required to evacuate the high number of people who needed to fly back home.

“We get a lot of questions from troubled travellers on how you can get back to Germany. You can be sure that we are working flat out and in discussion with the Kenyan government to organise flights for you,” said the Ambassador.

Norway, which is in Europe, chartered flights for its nationals ahead of the deadline owing to difficulties to reschedule flights by those who had planned to fly after last night.

“After it became known that Kenya will close its airports from midnight on Wednesday March 25, work is now underway to look into the possibilities of setting up chartered extra flights to Europe,” read a statement by the Ambassador Elin Rognlie-led embassy released on Tuesday.

The Danish Ambassador Frans Makken said the country, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Dutch Association of Insurers and travel industry organisation embarked on helping its nationals who would have otherwise got stuck due to the travel ban to leave Nairobi.

Yesterday, Kenya Airways organised an extra flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, which left JKIA at 10pm, and Makken had rallied Dutch nationals in Nairobi who wished to use it to book the flight at their own expense.

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