Kenya Airways’ maiden flight to the United States touched down in New York on Monday (Oct. 29), an important milestone for a carrier bedeviled by years of losses, large debts, and labor strikes. The airline now joins a small number of African carriers—including Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, Royal Air Maroc, and Cabo Verde Airlines—offering direct flights from the African continent to the US.
The inaugural flight was hailed by both Kenyan and American officials as “historic,” saying it will enhance Nairobi’s position as a convenient gateway to East Africa.
The route to New York comes after years of trying to repeatedly meet US security and compliance standards so Jomo Kenyatta international airport could act as a “last point of departure” to the US. These included separating departing and arriving traffic, building more runways, fencing the international airport, and clearing the flight paths from buildings.
All this was shadowed by the threats of terrorism stemming mainly from the group al-Shabaab, leading to the cancellation of a Delta Airlines planned route from Atlanta, Georgia to Nairobi in 2009. Kenya’s government, which is hoping to boost its tourism sector, had to tackle these issues while undertaking a multi-million-dollar expansion plan.
The New York route is also part of the airline’s strategy to stem losses, attract premium passengers, and pay down $2 billion in restructured debt.
The United States, which is one of Kenya’s top tourism markets, offers an outfall: almost 150,000 Americans visited Kenya for business, holiday, and transit in 2017 alone, according to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics. Kenya is host to regional hubs for US companies like Google, IBM, and Intel and travelers visiting the East African nation are forced to change flights in Europe or the Middle East in trips that last more than 20 hours. Kenya Airways (KQ) estimates the New York route will reportedly boost its revenue by 10% in 2019.
But while having a direct route to one of the world’s leading economies bears significance, Kenya Airways should “employ the right mix of pricing, frequency, and incentives to put bums on those seats and justify the need to make that flight,” says Michael Otieno, managing partner at the Nairobi-based SADIM Airline Management Solutions.
Otieno says that while the time-saving factor for the business traveler is the primary target for long-haul direct flights, the bulk of air travelers are either tourists or those visiting friends and family “who are primarily guided by pricing factors as opposed to connections and layovers.” As such, reducing stopovers for passengers on regional KQ markets in east, central, southern, and Indian Ocean islands will be key to maximizing profit and attracting more clients.