As the stale scent of smoke lingers over the scorched remains of the international terminal of NBO airport in Kenya, so to do the questions. How did the fire start? What will be the value of the damage? How long will it take to recover? When will flights be back to normal?

The devastating, absolutely devastating, fire that broke out in Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi just days ago, simultaneously broke hearts as locals, tourists, traders, and members of the global community the world over thought over the implications of the inferno.

That moment in time was about so much more than simply an airport in flames.

It was about the almost two million tourists that use NBO as their first step of their African dream come true.

It was about the millions of fresh-from-the-farm rose stems grown across the country that use NBO as the start of their voyage to florists across the globe.

It was about the millions of Kenyans who rely on tourism, exports, agriculture and aviation, and NBO, for their chance to earn a living to be able to, first and foremost, feed their families and pay school fees.

Within hours of the fire breaking out, swiftly and without speculation around the ‘why‘ and ‘who’, the story became about the ‘what now’. As comprehensively covered by CNN, the NBO fire was about economic impact – what would this do to tourism and exports in Kenya, and across the regional and global trading zones that NBO served. How would this impact the lives of the people of Kenya.

Interestingly, and sadly, as with Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcanic ash cloud in 2010 that, over its peak no-fly period of April 14-20, froze air travel with its cancellation of over 100,000 flights worldwide (costing an estimated US$ 200 million per day, according to IATA), leaving untold numbers of travellers stranded, and costing billions in export losses, the NBO fire of this past week put a bright, hot, emergency spotlight on the critical role of the aviation sector as the backbone for nations the world over – economically, socially and competitively. Without airline connectivity, many nations across the globe are simply locked out of the chance to create a future through global commerce, especially emerging nations.

As shared by IATA just weeks ago in their capture of 2012 Headlines around global aviation and its continued growth, “Systemwide, airlines carried 2.977 billion passengers on scheduled services. Developing economies continued to drive global demand growth: 65% of the growth in passenger numbers on international services in 2012 occurred on markets linked to emerging markets.

Cargo, the invaluable belly of the aircraft, has unlocked markets across the globe to participate in export activity at levels that are lifting agriculture, manufacturing, and other industries to levels critical for greater GDP advancement and employment generation.

ATAG, in its 2010 review of the industry, estimated that the aviation sector is responsible for 56.6 million jobs worldwide, and generates over US$ 2.2 trillion in direct, indirect and tourism induced economic impact.

The bottom line – aviation, and travel and tourism, are essential to global economic and social connectivity, which in turn turns people of nations across the globe, especially the most needing of a chance for a better life, into productive, proud, hopeful citizen.

The NBO fire, still being assessed for immediate damage, will continue to have embers of fear slowly burning when it comes to understanding exactly what the long-term impact will be of the closure of this critical tourism and trade gateway.

As exposed with fiery poignancy just days ago, airports and airlines are about so much more than buildings and big metal birds. These sectors, paired, and as part of the greater global economic and social eco-system, are about keeping people looking up – literally, figuratively, globally.


Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2013