by Christopher J Varady
ALL PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY
Airline: Kenya Airways
Flights: KQ321, KQ508
Route: Cairo [El Qâhira], Egypt (IATA: CAI/ICAO: HECA)–
Khartoum, Sudan (KRT/HSSS)–Nairobi, Kenya (NBO/HKJK)–Accra, Ghana (ACC/DGAA)–Monrovia, Liberia (ROB/GLRB)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-800
Kenya Airways and other SkyTeam members operate from the very shabby Terminal 2 or ‘new Terminal’ at Cairo International Airport. It is the oldest and most beat-up of the three terminals currently in use. Yet, for a humanitarian aid worker, it still does not make the list of the world’s five worst airports.
With no other passengers at the Kenya Airways desk, I checked in quickly and was provided with boarding passes through to my final destination. However, despite requesting an aisle seat, I noticed that the connecting—and most grueling leg—was assigned a middle seat. Immigration officials stamped me out quickly, without even looking at the photo in my passport. The new terminal offers dismal options to departing passengers. Duty free shops are reminiscent of the Soviet Union with empty counters and a few unappetizing-looking food outlets. Apart from this lack of options, there is nowhere to sit until your flight is called and you pass through security.
Seating in the economy class cabin.
Boarding proceeded at the usual pace with many passengers trying to fit over-sized carry-on luggage into the overhead lockers. Most passengers were Egyptians travelling only as far as Khartoum. After the safety demonstration video, we took off quickly and headed south along the Nile.
Immediately after the seatbelt sign was turned off, flight attendants began passing out headsets and hot towels. Kenya Airways also provides a detailed and visually appealing in-flight map. I browsed through the duty free catalog, which had a great selection of items that far surpassed my expectations for Kenya Airways.
Meal choice consisted of chicken or beef; I chose fowl. The breast meat was accompanied by vegetables and cheese ravioli. A tiramisu cake and dinner roll completed the meal. Selecting a red wine, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Terra Adina merlot from Chile. Coffee and tea service rounded off the service. The six cabin crewmembers served the passengers quickly with genuine friendliness.
Chicken dinner en route to Nairobi.
The flight path into Khartoum took us directly over the confluence of the Niles, and the wide expanse of the city’s lights revealed a huge city. After the airplane stopped at the remote stand, a rather aggressive jostle for luggage and deplaning began. Leaving via the airstairs, we boarded a bus for the terminal. All but about ten passengers disembarked at Khartoum.
After about 45 minutes on the ground, the flight filled up with Sudanese passengers, who occupied nearly every seat. We took off from the airport’s single runway, passing a huge number of military airplanes and helicopters. After making a 180-degree turn after takeoff, we again passed over the confluence of the Niles and headed south for the final 2½ hours to Nairobi.
By this time I was exhausted by the overnight flight with insufficient time to grab enough rest. Flight attendants offered a breakfast of yogurt and croissants but I opted to sleep.
Arrival and Transit
We arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Airport at about 0700, descending over the beautiful Great Rift Valley. Nairobi’s airport is a contrast to Kenya Airways’s world class in-flight product and a hindrance to the airline’s attempt to create a satisfactory hub in East Africa. The airport is overcrowded, dark, claustrophobic, and doesn’t offer enough amenities to transiting passengers. It still conveys the image of a typical third world airport. With two flights to Europe ready to board, the constricted areas available to passengers were filled to capacity.
Welcome to Nairobi Airport.
Despite the boarding gate having a Jetway, we walked down a long ramp onto the tarmac, and then climbed three steps to reach the stairway of our 737. Nairobi’s dry air and temperate climate gave weary travellers a brief respite before entering another aircraft for a long trip.
Upon boarding, flight attendants attentively helped passengers stow their luggage and find their seats. They also individually explained the operation of the emergency exits to passengers seated in the two exit rows.
After a takeoff roll lasting one minute, we climbed into the clear skies above Nairobi. Because the flight was only about half-full, I found an empty row and anticipated grabbing some sleep on the five-hour flight to Accra.
Within the first hour of flight, we reached the tropical rainforests of Central Africa, with thick, heavy clouds covering the landscape. Flight attendants began their service with an aperitif and mixed nuts. I chose the Chilean wine (apparently the only option offered by Kenya Airways) and noticed that the mixed nuts were a high-quality gourmet mix rather than the usual greasy peanut option of other airlines. The main course followed quickly, with flight attendants working in tandem, one serving the meal and the other offering drinks. I chose the curry chicken, which turned out to be quite tasty, accompanied by saffron rice. A fruit cup and a vanilla yogurt completed the meal. It became obvious that Kenya Airways flight attendants are extremely well-trained, and on par with those of the world’s best airlines.
An aperitif before dinner.
Another meal en route to Accra.
After my meal tray was collected, I settled in and woke up only a few minutes before our arrival into Accra. From the air this is a huge, low-rise city with a surprising number of large houses for the middle classes. The airport, however, remains a cemetery of Ghana Airways aircraft rusting in the tropical sun. A McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and DC-10, both gutted, are laid to rest in a grassy field next to the taxiway.
Descent over Accra.
The ground stop in Accra was brief, and two buses brought a full flight’s worth of passengers for boarding on the final leg of this journey across Africa. Examples of all of the continent’s usual characters—local elite, aid workers, businessmen, and Chinese construction workers—took up every available seat for the final 90-minute stage to Monrovia.
Once airborne, flight attendants began yet another full meal service. Despite choppy conditions, meal trays were distributed quickly. I chose the vegetarian option, over chicken or beef. The roasted vegetables with African spicy sauces proved quite tasty, and were accompanied by a chocolate mousse and full beverage service.
Descending over the ocean, we landed at Roberts International Airport in a lush tropical landscape. The airport is located about 40km (25mi) from Monrovia itself, and appears quite isolated.
The terminal is essentially a cinder block shack, but surprisingly well-organized inside. I passed through immigration, with the officer asking me the purpose of my trip and my intended length of stay. The baggage carousel is old and small, able to accommodate only a fraction of the luggage from the aircraft. While waiting for my bags, the tropical heat began to affect some passengers. Liberian customs formalities are a bit of a mystery, with everyone having to open their luggage for inspection. However, the officials remained polite and professional throughout.
Kenya Airways, a SkyTeam associate, is world-class. Indeed, I noticed very few differences between KQ’s service and that of the five-star airlines. In the air, KQ can truly claim to be 'The Pride of Africa’. Unfortunately, its Jomo Kenyatta International Airport hub holds the airline back from ranking among the great names. The customers’ transit experience needs attention in an attempt to improve upon it. For Kenya Airways, this is a crucial step to further growth.