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The African member of the SkyTeam alliance, and Delta partner, has a new flight in an underserved market: nonstops from the US to fast-growing East Africa. Pros: eager, friendly service on modern airplanes; easy accrual and spending of Delta and FlyingBlue miles. Cons: bland food and inflight entertainment; some kinks in the soft product; 2-2-2 biz class with no aisle access for all seats; unexpected stowaway.
For an airline that calls itself “the Pride of Africa,” Kenya Airways was missing a big part of what makes a top-tier international carrier: a flight to New York. There may be bigger metropolises with a serious claim to the title of top global city, but New York’s allure is unmatched, and airlines derive prestige (plus profits) from serving the largest city in the world’s largest economy.
So it was with enormous fanfare last month that Kenya’s flag carrier began an ambitious daily nonstop service to New York-JFK — the first-ever nonstop between Kenya and the US by any airline. On Oct. 28, Kenya Airways became one of just five African carriers serving New York, joining a club that includes Egyptair, Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian and South African. Flights KQ2 and the return KQ3 are the lowest-numbered in the airline’s numbering system: New York flights from many airlines have single-digit numbers, highlighting how prestigious they are considered.
At up to 15 hours long on the westbound leg, the JFK route needs two Dreamliners to operate daily. That’s fully one-fourth of the airline’s entire long-haul fleet of eight 787s, a huge commitment that says Kenya Airways is really betting heavily on this flight to lead its return to profitability. [Edit, Dec. 7: As of January 16 and until June 19, 2019, the airline is reducing the flight’s frequency to five times a week from seven.]
The airline has long been in serious financial trouble. It’s been losing money for at least five years and is now owned by the government and local banks after a debt-for-equity restructuring. It lost the equivalent of $40 million in the first half of this year, but the good news is that the figure is almost 30% better than in the same period of 2017. The New York flight on the fuel-efficient, reliable 787 may prove to be a big revenue generator for Kenya Airways.
The route is interesting especially to flyers loyal to Delta, which is stepping up cooperation with Kenya Airways, its partner in the SkyTeam alliance. You can collect Delta SkyMiles on all KQ flights. You’ll likely find that one of the best ways to book the new nonstop with points and miles is to use FlyingBlue, Air France-KLM’s mileage program, like we did.
We decided to avoid the media circus of the inaugural flight and review instead one of the services running a few days after that, for an experience far more representative of what passengers could really expect.
For 115,000 FlyingBlue miles transferred from American Express Membership Rewards plus $348.10 in taxes and fees paid for with The Platinum Card from American Express we booked a one-way business-class ticket on Saturday, Nov. 3 — the sixth day of operation from JFK to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO). This was an award ticket meaning I didn’t earn any SkyMiles on this flight, but we did earn some Membership Rewards points (1,740, worth about $33 according to TPG’s most recent valuations) thanks to the card’s 5x bonus category on airfare purchases. FlyingBlue miles are comparatively easy to come by, since it’s partners with the three major points currencies. If you’re interested in booking this flight but short on the miles front, consider signing up for The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
Since this was a booking with FlyingBlue miles, I got an email from Air France telling me I could check in 30 hours in advance. And since the flight was operated by a partner airline, the AF site redirected me to check in on the Kenya Airways one — which stubbornly told me that my booking didn’t exist. Not by name, not by my FlyingBlue number, not by booking code.
Worried that a lack of communication between computer systems would leave me stranded, even though I had already been able to select a seat on the Air France site, I Googled “Kenya Airways contact number” without much conviction. And yet, a toll-free US number popped up as the first result. An agent picked up my call immediately and solved my problem on the spot: Yes, KQ knew that I existed and was flying with them. My chosen seat was confirmed, too. All I’d have to do was show up at the check-in counter, the old-fashioned way. Score one for the Kenyans: Barely a week in the States, and they already had better customer service than some American carriers.
The next day, things went smoothly. Kenya Airways already had its name up at Door 4, Terminal 4, opening onto check-in Row 6.
I spotted easily the familiar Sky Priority sign and joined the line for business class. As a SkyTeam Elite Plus passenger, courtesy of my Delta Platinum Medallion status, I could have used the adjoining SkyPriority lane even if I had been flying coach.
Kenya Airways didn’t participate in TSA PreCheck, and I asked the check-in agent if it would soon.
Not yet, she said, apologetically: “We’re new to the station.”
As for the lounge, she directed me to the Delta SkyClub.
“It’s a long walk,” she warned.
It may have been a new station for her, but she already knew about the dreaded march that Delta flyers routinely endure at the humongously long T4.
After the shoes-off, laptops-out, surly-agent unpleasantness of non-PreCheck security, I made the trek to the SkyClub, which at least was very close to the departure gate. I had also never seen before the lounge as empty as that day, but I don’t usually fly out of New York at 11am on a Saturday.
I nibbled at cold chicken, but I was far more interested in the great views the lounge is known for. Sadly, the SkyDeck observation terrace was closed, but the huge windows overlooking the apron, three of JFK’s four runways and Manhattan delivered, as usual.
You know you’re flying Kenya Airways when your boarding pass has lions on it, right? The image was part of the Magical Kenya tourism campaign. I would see a lot more of it for the next 13 hours, in the inflight magazine and in a beautifully produced video — featuring an absolutely rousing song — that played before every show on the onboard monitors.
No fewer than six KQ agents were working Gate B31. Boarding began in an orderly fashion, right on time at 12:15pm, for our 1pm scheduled departure.
Waiting outside was a 787-8, the smallest of the three models of Boeing’s ultramodern Dreamliner. A check of its Kenyan registration, 5Y-KZC, revealed this was a 4-year-old bird and the third Dreamliner to enter service with KQ. The airline names its aircraft, and this one was Maasai Mara, after the famous wildlife reserve.
Cabin and Seat
Kenya Airways’ 787s are configured with 30 Premier World (business) seats in five rows of 2-2-2 and 204 in economy, laid out 3-3-3. The first three rows of biz class are between the two front galleys, and the other two are in a mini cabin right behind.
The mini cabin seemed cozy and attractive, but it was above the wing. I’m an AvGeek, and I don’t have fun on airplanes if I can’t photograph out the window — so my choice was 3J, unobstructed by the wing but with a good view of the starboard engine.
The 2-2-2 layouts aren’t great for privacy, and window-seat passengers must step over a seatmate to access the aisle. You might luck out with an unoccupied seat next to you, but in my case, biz class was chock full.
Intuitive seat controls were easy to use. Storage options included two open compartments under the footrest for shoes or other large objects, two open slots between each seat pair that would have fit tablets or a 13-inch laptop, and a cubby under the movable armrest that housed the remote and power outlet, with enough left for a small water bottle and a phone. The cubbyholes for the headphones between the monitors doubled as storage for other small objects.
My Kenyan seatmate was as enthusiastic a supporter of this flight as everybody else I spoke with in the country later. President Uhuru Kenyatta himself, the son of Kenya’s first president Jomo — to whom NBO airport is dedicated — even wrote a piece in the inflight magazine to celebrate it. It’s obvious that the airline takes its role as an ambassador of Kenyan identity seriously. It does that with a light hand, though: Witness the safety video, featuring, again, a lion.
Just after takeoff, on time at 1:16pm, I knew that choosing Seat 3J had been a good idea, as we made a steep left turn over Queens, with the red engine and blue skies making for a dramatic contrast.
First the bad news: Kenya Airways doesn’t offer Wi-Fi. The inflight entertainment featured 100 movies and 48 hours of TV shows. I quit halfway through Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” but made it to the end of “Red Sparrow,” in which Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling play Russian spies. They speak English, even among themselves, but with comically fake Russian accents. The Chinese subtitles on the inflight movies (and the Chinese names on a lot of factories and warehouses in Nairobi) served as a clear reminder that China is a large presence in Kenya.
Then there were the maps — sharp and detailed, but not of the pinch-and-zoom kind. The entertainment system could in fact be controlled only by remote. The screen would have been too far to operate comfortably by touch anyway.
Movies produced in Africa were grouped under their own section. Again, the lion made a proud appearance.
The channel dedicated to the airline’s marketing content was an interesting look into how KQ is trying hard to develop Nairobi as a hub for East Africa. It won’t be easy — its fleet remains relatively small, and successful hubs tend to offer lots of frequencies — but the Kenyan economy has grown at about 5% a year for the past 15 years. The demand is clearly there.
Besides the usual blanket and pillow, I didn’t find an amenity kit at my seat, nor could I see any around. I only got one after asking specifically during the flight. It contained all the usual accoutrements, with socks featuring lion paw prints.
The two rear business-class bathrooms were standard-size 787 lavatories. The front one, which I didn’t visit, was a bit larger. Ten people per bathroom is a good ratio for an airplane, and I never had to wait.
Food and Beverage
After distributing and retrieving really hot towels after boarding, flight attendants brought out menus in elegant folders, which fit perfectly in the storage holes between the seats. Weirdly enough, they called “dinner” the meal served just after takeoff.
Forty-five minutes after takeoff, beverage carts appeared. I’d never had Gobillard champagne before; it wasn’t sensational, but the bubbles, the cold amuse-bouche served with the champagne and the spacious, bright cabin, plus a courteous and engaging seatmate, made for a cheerful atmosphere.
Fifteen minutes later, two of the three flight attendants working biz class came to take our lunch orders: I chose chicken for my entree and carrot-and-ginger soup for the appetizer, with a glass of Côtes du Rhône white wine.
“Ice?” asked the flight attendant.
I’m not a wine snob and won’t judge people for putting an ice cube in their white wine on a hot day, but that was a question I’d never heard on a plane. Or at a restaurant on the ground, for that matter. I declined, a little puzzled.
Minutes later, she reappeared with a glass full of dark liquid that clearly was not white wine. It turned out to be Coke Zero, which is what she thought I’d asked for, and in which ice does go. We had a laugh about it, and she returned promptly with the Côtes du Rhône and an apology.
The highlight of the meal was the smooth soup, served at the perfect temperature. Honorable mention for the grilled halloumi cheese appetizer, with a fresh note of pesto that went very well with my wine. The chicken would instead qualify, on the ground, as a bland rotisserie bird.
After the cheese plate and a cup of tea, we were still 6,000 miles from our destination, with almost 11 hours to go. The crew turned off the lights out and darkened the windows — 787s don’t have window shades — signaling that now would be a good time to try and get some sleep.
That was when an unwanted fellow passenger showed up on the wall next to me: a cockroach. Since I was on this flight to document things, I grabbed my camera instead of my shoe.
This wasn’t good, but let’s put things in perspective: Airplanes crisscross the world. They have their doors open for hours on the ground, where insects fly in easily. Or get carried in suitcases. Bugs don’t discriminate; they will happily infest very prestigious airlines. In other words, yes, a cockroach on board is disgusting, but I didn’t feel like reflexively blaming the airline.
This particular cockroach moved slowly and dazedly, possibly from days on the plane — who knows where it had come on board? — and was no match for the flight attendant whom I alerted to the problem. He solved it with a small can of insecticide. Bugs are plentiful in the climates served by Kenya Airways, and cabin crews in the tropics do have insecticide on board. So, like a good New Yorker, I made my peace with our insect neighbors, put the seat in lie-flat mode and did not give the matter a second thought.
What did bug me, though, was the bed length, not quite enough for my 6-feet, 2-inch frame. I would have loved an extra inch. The fleece blanket was lightweight, very warm and long enough.
Over the Algerian desert, seven hours out of New York and with six more to go, I woke and looked at the inflight map. The JFK-NBO nonstop was a good way to gauge the immensity of the African continent. It took us about as long to cross the Sahara as to cross the Atlantic.
At that point, snacks also came out, with a choice between a vol-au-vent with mushrooms or a pizza. I asked for both, which was granted with no fuss. The pizza was much better than the vol-au-vent.
Trying to sleep again didn’t quite work, so I played with the inflight entertainment system until the real AvGeek entertainment, sunrise on the spinning blades of our General Electric engines, happened a couple of hours before arrival.
Ninety minutes from NBO, breakfast was served, accompanied by a not-very-good coffee. The mini chocolate croissants were excellent. The main dish, an omelette with a sausage and a potato cake, was not.
Half an hour before landing, the captain came on the intercom.
“Welcome to Kenya,” he said, as we crossed into Kenyan airspace from Uganda, over the expanse of Lake Victoria.
Maasai Mara touched down at 1:58am New York time, 8:58am local, home after 12 hours and 42 minutes, or 7,503 miles, in the air.
Kenya Airways’ new flagship service should be on your radar, especially if you are a Delta/SkyTeam flyer. My experience on it was not flawless — consider the cockroach, the missing amenity kit, the bland food — but KQ got me to Nairobi in a flat-bed seat smoothly, without any real issues, and demonstrated a willingness to compete for real — take the excellent customer service I got before departure. I would fly the carrier again without hesitation.
Know before you go.
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