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Rwandair is tiny but wants to punch way above its weight. Pros: Together with South African, the airline can make a legitimate claim to having the best business-class seat in Africa. Cons: It also has bland food, limited inflight entertainment and no points or miles partners.
East African airlines are on the move. Kenya Airways just made headlines with an ambitious nonstop flight from Nairobi, Kenya, to New York-JFK; Ethiopian Airlines is solidly profitable and expanding around the world with a fleet of state-of-the-art Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s; and even tiny RwandAir, the flag carrier of a small nation of 12 million people, wants in on the action. Rwanda’s state-owned airline has two long-haul Airbus A330s in the fleet and two more on order — it’s hardly a big player, but one with big aspirations. When it gets those other two Airbuses, of the longer-range A330neo variant, it even wants to use them to fly to New York.
It’s far from certain that this will actually happen — and the flight would stop in Ghana according to the airline’s CEO — but we know one thing for sure: RwandAir is certainly in the running for having the best business-class cabin among African airlines, along with South African Airways’ A330s, which have the same seat. Arranged in a 1-2-1 layout offering aisle access to all seats and sporting the same Thompson Vantage XL seat found aboard several top airlines including Scandinavian, this is an interesting product. It can be found on the thrice-weekly run from Kigali, Rwanda (KGL), to London-Gatwick (LGW) via Brussels (BRU), as well as on an intra-Africa route to Accra, Ghana (ACC), via Lagos, Nigeria (LOS), and a circuitous route to Dubai (DXB) via Mombasa, Kenya (MBA).
We booked a Nairobi (NBO)-Kigali-Brussels-Gatwick route in business class as part of the return to New York after flying Kenya Airways’ new nonstop from New York to Nairobi. The NBO to KGL leg was on an older Boeing 737 via Entebbe, Uganda (EBB), and the flight to Europe on the twin-aisle Airbus with the cool biz class.
You can’t book RwandAir with any miles other than the airline’s own. Its mileage program, Dream Miles, does not have partners, and RwandAir is not in any alliance. But the cash fare from Nairobi to London in business class came to a really low $1,358.70 — and we paid that with the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earned 5x points on travel purchases, giving us 6,793 points, worth $129 at TPG’s current valuations.
I could have earned 9,000 Dream Miles for my NBO-LGW flight. But I would have had to join the program first by opening yet another frequent-flyer account, and my miles would have expired in two years and wouldn’t have been nearly enough for a redemption, and the likelihood I will fly RwandAir again in the next two years is slim. So I didn’t bother. It is pretty irksome for someone who collects points and miles to fly a fully paid fare 10 hours in business class and get zero miles for it — then again, those 10 hours in an all-aisle-access biz class on most other carriers would have cost a lot more.
Getting to KGL required a brutal 2am wakeup call for the 5am flight out of Nairobi. At NBO, I had to pass a security check outside the airport before getting to my terminal, where I went through another security check.
RwandAir left from Terminal 1C, a rather dingy, neon-lit affair, with check-in handled by employees of Kenya Airways. I was able to check-in all the way through to London — I had no luggage to check — and found out from looking at my boarding pass that I had been assigned a different seat than I had selected online for the KGL-LGW flight. This could not be changed by the check-in agent, who advised me to ask in Kigali. I ended up keeping my new seat, which turned out to be one of the coveted, more private single seats isolated from the aisle.
RwandAir used Kenya Airways’ Simba lounge at Terminal 1C, and there was no way to sugarcoat it: It was bad. It was better than sitting on a plastic chair in a dimly lit terminal at 4am, but do not go in expecting a lounge like you’d find at a major European — or even American — airport.
Flight: Nairobi to Kigali
Flight WB465 boarded at 4:35am by plain old walking out to the plane, an 11-year old, short-body 737 Model 700 with the Rwandan registration 9XR-WK. On the inside, the 737 looked its age, with recliner seats right out of an early-2000s throwback.
On it, though, I experienced the fastest meal service I’d ever seen on an airplane. We took off at 5:14am, breakfast trays were put in front of us at 5:30am, with a choice between vegetarian or poached egg, and then were collected at 5:40am — a full hot breakfast on a flight of less than an hour! See if any US or European airline will do that for you.
Granted, the food was nowhere near gourmet, but I didn’t really mind. The highlight turned out however to be not the subpar food but a heavy thunderstorm, with lightning flashing outside and rain so hard it could be heard hitting the roof over the engine noise. Things were bad enough that our captain, during an extended circling while waiting for the skies to clear, contemplated a diversion before “attempting to approach” — his words.
We got into EBB just fine with a 30-minute delay, stayed on board while other passengers came on and then landed at KGL —after another breakfast service with muffin, croissant and tea — with just enough time to make my connection.
Boarding: Kigali to London
With a tight connection to make, I barely had time to change some leftover Kenyan shillings to US dollars and then go through security. Going to a lounge was out of the question, so I headed straight to the gate, which was not hard to find at the tiny KGL airport.
Boarding was scheduled to begin at 7:30am, and at 7:30 on the dot, a gate agent called — no loudspeakers, just a guy with a loud voice — for business-class passengers to board, which we did the old-fashioned way. And I mean truly old-fashioned, just like in Nairobi, by walking out onto the apron to the airplane. Great for aviation nerds and a pleasure on a sunny morning, but I would not want to do this in Rwanda’s heavy rains.
The Airbus A330 waiting for us was a 300 model built in 2016, registered 9XR-WP and named Umurage, or “heritage” in the Kinyarwanda language. Its sister ship, a smaller A330-200, bore the name Ubumwe, “unity.”
Cabin and Seat
Both RwandAir Airbuses were arranged in a three-class layout with business, premium economy and economy. The bigger 300 featured 30 biz seats, 21 in premium economy, configured 2-3-2, and 223 in economy, configured 2-4-2. On the A330-200, you’d find the same seats but smaller coach and business sections.
The front cabin, with all 30 biz seats, was airy and spacious and featured an unusual color scheme, much in keeping with the colors of the country it represented. Rwanda from the air looked green and clay red …
… and so did its national airline.
My seat was 4A. If you were traveling alone, even-numbered window seats (2A to 8A and 2H to 8H) would’ve been the way to go, since the wide armrest separated you from the aisle. The odd rows had the armrest next to the window.
Traditional designs adorned the front of the cabin on the bulkheads, another class touch. My seat offered a lot of space, with just one drawback in terms of the hard product: limited storage at the seat, with no enclosed space for small objects. The ledge where I found headphones and a water bottle was a good place for my phone and other pocket things, but I would have liked a cubby for my laptop. An international power outlet and powered USB connection were below the storage ledge.
As expected with a flat-bed seat, there was ample room for my legs. Many passengers complain of tiny footwells with the Thompson Vantage XL seat, but I didn’t feel crammed when lying down in bed mode. (I’m 6 feet, 2 inches.)
The tray table extended smoothly at the push of a button to my right.
Next to the table release, a set of simplified seat and light controls made adjustments when lying down easy. The seat offered a massage function, which I’ve never found more than a gimmick on any seat where I’ve tried it.
Extended seat controls and a reading light were to my right.
A beautifully designed, wired, two-sided remote slid out of housing under the open storage area. The inflight entertainment worked either by touchscreen or remote.
The headphones that came with the seat did an honest job.
By the IFE monitor, an on/off button, USB powered connection and another headphone jack completed the array of options within reach of the seat.
The leather headrests with embossed logo were a classy touch.
As I got settled, I took off my jacket and put it in the overhead bin above me. Flight attendants did not offer to store it in a closet, but biz class was half empty and there was plenty of space overhead for it. More than half empty in fact, with just 13 passengers to Brussels. Only five of us would stay on until London. RwandAir does not have fifth-freedom rights to pick up passengers between Belgium and the UK.
Three bathrooms — one at the front, two at the back — offered a good ratio of people per lavatory. They were otherwise standard-issue A330 bathrooms, kept clean throughout the flight.
In the flat-bed position, the seat was plenty long enough for me, with a warm cozy blanket — the cabin may have been a little too warm for the average American used to strong air conditioning, in fact — and a too-flimsy pillow. I grabbed another one from a nearby empty seat, and even then could have used more head support. I still slept a couple hours pretty solidly.
What I did not find at my seat was an amenity kit. I had to ask a passing flight attendant for one, which was brought to me about 15 minutes later, wrapped in cellophane.
Besides the usual things — eye mask, socks, toothpaste and toothbrush, ear plugs, lip balm, moisturizer — it contained a safety razor and shaving cream.
The IFE, possessed by strange gremlins that the crew could not quite kill off, occasionally skipped at random midway through a song or a movie, and the content was unexciting. Too bad, because the large and sharp screen would have made for pretty gorgeous viewing. In fact, the IFE did not work at all until I called a flight attendant who showed up seconds after I hit the call button and tried, in vain, to reset the system. It took another reset to finally get it to work and show me the 29 movies and 21 TV shows on offer.
When I settled on a movie (“Anon,” from a catalog heavy with generic, bland international titles) the IFE kept skipping ahead at random, making it impossible to watch. I had better luck with an elephant documentary, which I managed to watch through, but the gremlins surfaced again when I tried another movie or music from the audio section. By then I had seen the crew reset the system a couple of times, so I did another reset on my own, which finally seemed to fix the problem — with only two hours remaining, though.
The outside views were much more fun. Two well-cleaned windows per biz seat afforded beautiful views of Africa’s varied landscape, from the famously verdant hills of Rwanda …
… to the stark landscape of Sudan, with sparse traces of human habitation.
The projected route shown on the IFE map — which was not of the pinch-and-zoom kind, unfortunately — overflew Libya, the most direct course to Brussels, but that’s not what we ended up doing. Libya is a conflict zone, and most airlines avoid it. Our captain told us we would overfly Egypt, and that’s what we did, as the route map from flight-tracking site FlightAware later showed. (The first two hours or so were not tracked.)
RwandAir also had the only planes equipped with Wi-Fi in the whole of East Africa, with both its Airbuses fitted with satellite antennas. Over Africa, though, the system was utterly dead as I repeatedly tried connecting with my phone; I had no better luck over the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, I decided to try on my laptop, which did work, but at abysmal speeds. I tried the 15-minute free option, and it timed out before loading even text-only Gmail. Speedtest returned a pretty clear message: No can do, buddy.
Determined to at least catch up on emails, I flagged down a passing flight attendant and explained my problem, made all the more unnerving by the sight of another passenger making what appeared to be a Wi-Fi voice call. He alerted another crew member, who introduced himself as Bonaventure and solicitously tried all he could to solve my problem.
Eventually I succeeded, after paying $10 for one hour of connectivity with a 40-megabyte limit, to load Gmail and one (yes, one) Google doc. As we approached Brussels, Bonaventure stopped at my seat to ask if I had managed to connect and tell me that he had even asked the pilots about the Wi-Fi. I took the whole brouhaha as a reminder that flying above the earth at 600 mph and being connected to the Internet via signals relayed from space is not something to take for granted.
Food and Beverage
Shortly after boarding, a flight attendant came down the aisle with a tray of glasses with orange juice and water. After a smooth takeoff and climb to cruising altitude, another round of juices appeared, followed by the breakfast cart, with no menu. The choice between the two main dishes was presented simply as “plain omelet or with ham?”
My choice, the ham, accompanied by a sausage and fries plus a slice of tomato, was pretty bland, as were the coffee and fruit plate. RwandAir wasn’t starving me — I already had eaten quite a lot on the 737 from Nairobi — but wasn’t serving me anything notable, either.
Three hours later, as lunchtime approached after my post-breakfast nap, a full beverage cart appeared, but the migraine pill I had taken earlier meant avoiding alcohol. I instead had an orange juice with an appetizer of nuts that would have benefited greatly from a quick warmup in the microwave.
At 1:20pm Kigali time, one hour ahead of Brussels, lunch was served from a cart, again with no menu. The smoked salmon appetizer — there wasn’t a choice — was the culinary highlight of the whole flight. I’d have gladly eaten a couple more servings. The entree was a choice between beef, rice and beans or fish. This was by no means a presentation on par with the best international biz-class standards. The beef was stringy and on the chewy side, too. Lunch, concluded by a fruit dessert, was not a success.
A couple hours from landing, I had a cup of tea, and shortly before landing in Brussels, a glass of apple juice. The passengers bound for London stayed on as the plane was refueled for the short hop across the English Channel. We arrived at Gatwick on time at 4:25pm local, after an uneventful flight and another serving of room-temperature nuts.
The purser made his welcome-to-London announcement in polished, easygoing English and sparkling French — both official languages in Rwanda, besides Kinyarwanda and Swahili — and we walked out to warm thank yous from a crew that had been unfailingly nice and helpful.
Plucky RwandAir deserves the best of luck, but with just two A330s and two more to come, it won’t scare the regional power, Ethiopian Airways. Without membership in an international alliance and a large route network, it will remain a niche player even if one day it does manage to start a flight to New York — a niche player, that is, with a business-class seat that ranks among the best in Africa and extremely attractive prices. Too bad for the service issues and lack of a serious mileage program, or I would really have thought about flying RwandAir again.
All images by the author unless otherwise indicated.
This story has been updated to indicate that a future flight from Kigali to New York would make a stop in Ghana.
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