Despite the finalization of an open skies agreement between the U.S. and Kenya May 30, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. is postponing a flight to Nairobi, the East African nation’s capital, until 2009.
The Delta flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport via Dakar, Senegal, has been marked “pending government approval” on the company Web site since its announcement last year, and was previously postponed from June to December. It would be the first route to Kenya by a U.S. airline, as travelers currently have to switch carriers in Europe or the Middle East to reach the country.
Commerce and State department officials reached an open skies deal after two days of discussions with a delegation led by Abdulrazaq Adan Ali, Kenya’s permanent secretary in the Ministry of Transport. The agreement allows airlines in both countries to open routes between their cities.
Government approval of new routes comes at an inopportune time for air travel, especially to Kenya, as airlines feel the effect of record-high fuel prices and the country is emerging from months of political turmoil.
More than 1,000 Kenyans were killed between December 2007 and February 2008, following a disputed election between President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga. The presidential rivals have since formed a unity government and are working to re-establish tourism, the country’s top industry, averaging $1 billion revenues annually.
Despite political progress, the airline does not see enough stability to start the flight and is to continue monitoring the situation.
“We’ve delayed our entry into the market given the uncertainty that exists there,” said Delta spokesperson Susan Elliott. “We hope to finalize that decision later this year, on the feasibility of flying to Nairobi.”
Stephen Ndiritu, chair of the Association of Kenyan Professionals in Atlanta, said that a direct U.S. connection would cut travel time to east Africa, making tourism, business and cargo flights more attractive.
“This impact would not just be felt by Kenyans but by the wider community,” he said. “Nairobi is a huge connecting place to the region.”
Mr. Ndiritu added that the quickest air route to Kenya from Atlanta is by way of Amsterdam, and takes at least 21 hours including flight and transfer times.
Agricultural products, especially coffee and tea, are Kenya’s largest export commodities and a shorter flight to the U.S. could mean greater access for perishable goods.
Mr. Ndiritu also said a U.S. airline establishing a route to Kenya might prompt a large airline there, such as Nairobi-based Kenya Airways, to begin flights to North America. The airline currently offers service across Africa and to Asia and Europe.
Terri Robl, director of the State Department’s office of aviation negotiations, said that talks with Kenyan officials about opening new air routes began in 2000.
The deal is the U.S.’s 92nd open skies agreement. The State Department negotiates these agreements after consulting the airline industry about which routes would be most profitable.
“The idea is to allow flexibility for the airlines of the two countries to respond to market conditions, so they can make plans based on what makes sense in the commercial respect,” Ms. Robl said.
She added that open skies agreements can lead to competition between airlines for certain routes, lowering consumer costs and increasing cargo flights between the two countries.
“We take into account passengers and different airports in the U.S. interested in having international service … hopefully they get more competitive air fares,” Ms. Robl said.