HIGHWAY IN THE SKY

For the first time in decades, Kenyans and Americans will be able to fly directly to each other’s countries

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Direct flights between Kenya and the United States could begin as early as May, according to Kenyan officials.

“We anticipate that we shall commence direct flights to the USA by May 2016, having as of now cleared almost all aviation audit issues,” transport cabinet secretary James Macharia told the Nation, a local newspaper.

For years, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) has tried to pass audits by US aviation officials so that its international airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, can host nonstop flights between the two countries. US airlines like Delta have also tried but failed to get approval.

Under the current rules, passengers have to connect through airports of countries whose civil aviation authorities have been approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), adding hours and multiple layovers to their travel time. There have not been direct flights between the US and Kenya since the late 1980s.

After failing the audit twice before, Kenya allocated 6.4 billion shillings ($62 million) to upgrade the airport built in the 1970s and address security and safety issues, such as the ability to separate arriving from departing passengers and the presence of buildings in the flight path of planes.

When president Barack Obama visited Kenya in July he said that progress had been made on launching direct flights. Now, Macharia says Kenya has completed “almost all” audit requirements. KCAA’s deputy director told another local newspaper that JKIA had passed an important hurdle, an audit by the International Civil Aviation Organization with a score of 88. A score of 80 is required to earn the FAA’s coveted category 1 status, which indicates that a country’s aviation authority meets international standards.

Currently only four sub-Saharan African countries meet the standards and are thus classified as “category 1” under the FAA’s International Aviation Safety Assessment program. These are South Africa, Ethiopia, Cabo Verde, and Nigeria.

Direct flights would help Kenya’s ailing tourism sector, which has yet to recover after a series of attacks by al-Shabaab militants based in neighboring Somalia. Aly Khan Satchu, a financial analyst in Nairobi, says the direct flights will also attract investors to East Africa’s largest economy.

“Nairobi-US direct flights have been seen by many, including myself, as a silver bullet. US investors have been gung-ho about Kenya. Their visits and tourism related activity means this ‘highway in the sky” has legs,” he tells Quartz.

The Kenyan diaspora is another important market. About 102,000 Kenyan immigrants and their families live in the US, most of whom have the means to travel home. Their median household income is $11,000 above the national median, according to a June report (pdf) by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Aspen Institute.

Flights between the US and Kenya could help sway other countries as well. South Korea’s largest airline stopped flights to Nairobi, the only destination it flew to in Africa, over Ebola fears in 2014 and has not resumed them.

Kenya and Japan are also in talks over beginning nonstop flights. “Where US leads others tend to follow,” Satchu says.

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