Kenya inches closer to direct US flights

Sunday March 13 2016

The new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP NATION MEDIA GROUP

More by this Author

Kenya is this week set to make two crucial steps in its bid for direct flights to the US with the opening of two terminals at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and the introduction of a Bill in Parliament that will integrate international standards with the country’s aviation laws.

The Civil Aviation Amendment Bill 2015, which the Sunday Nation has seen, seeks to give full regulatory powers to the Director General of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) while insulating him/her from political interference.

It will also increase the powers of the authority to include a role in airport security while granting it unhindered access to all aircraft within Kenyan borders and airspace, their documents and access to all airport sections.

Aircraft will also carry on board their certificates of registration, certificate of airworthiness, certificates of each flight member, a logbook and radio licence whenever they fly.


This comes as Kenya rushes to prepare itself ahead of an audit by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set for next month that would determine if the country’s largest airport would be upgraded to the much coveted Category 1 status.

The two terminals 1A and 1E expected to be opened by President Uhuru Kenyatta this week will separate arrival and departure traffic which is one of the conditions set by the US authorities for granting permission for direct flights between the two countries.

Their construction was part of an ambitious Sh6.4 billion upgrade of the airport that included the construction of a new security screening centre, clearing of the flight path, fencing the airport and the setting up of a GSU base inside the airport.

Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia told the Sunday Nation that the government has given itself a May deadline to complete the conditions set for approval of flights between Kenya and the US.

“Kenya has completed almost all relevant audit requirements by the US aviation authorities and the dream of direct flights between the two countries is within reach,” he says.

“It is up to the National Assembly to hasten the process of passing the Civil Aviation Bill once it is taken to the floor of the House,” he said.

But despite the government’s optimism, a recent security advisory by the FAA could complicate matters for JKIA.

“Al-Shabaab continues to demonstrate the capability to target aviation interests in Kenya. In January 2014, four suspected Al-Shabaab operatives attempted an improvised explosive device (IED) bombing of a coffee shop outside of the international terminal at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi,” says the advisory issued on February 26 and set for review next year.

In the advisory, the FAA said that the continued threat of extremist activity in the East Africa region and the possible flow of anti-aircraft capable weapons from Somalia or from former Libyan regime stockpiles into East Africa, could pose a risk to US flights operating in Kenya.

“US operators and airmen should exercise caution when operating in the territory and airspace of Kenya below 26,000 feet,” it said.


Among the requirements that JKIA had to meet was the construction of a new headquarters for the KCAA at a cost of Sh832 million funded by the World Bank.

The new headquarters also set to be opened soon will help prevent conflict of interest between KCAA and the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA).

The International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) had recommended that KCAA as a regulator should not continue leasing office space from KAA, a body it regulates.

The KAA acting managing director Yatich Kangugo says the infrastructure developments at the airport will improve efficiency, safety and security.

“It is all part of our commitment to deliver on our promise to offer world class service efficiently and effectively to our different stakeholders and the people of Kenya,” he says.

“We expect even further growth going forward as more capacity is unlocked which will improve level of service, security and controlled access to meet international standards, thus taking advantage of the strategic location of JKIA to position it as the premier aviation hub of Africa,” he says.

It is expected that the additional capacity injected by the two terminals would increase the airport’s annual passenger handling capacity  to 7.5 million passengers annually from 6.5 million.

To achieve a category 1 status, an airport has to meet some critical elements set by ICAO like safety oversight, the state’s civil aviation system, licensing, and surveillance obligations and integrate its aviation legislation to ICAO standards. 


To pass, an airport has to score more than 80 per cent during an annual assessment by ICAO.

Kenya has tried twice and failed scoring 66 per cent and 78.42 in 2013 and 2014. Last September JKIA scored 88 per cent inching it closer to passing the FAA test.

The second class status of JKIA means passengers flying from Kenya to the US have to transit through Europe, the Middle East or any of the four African countries whose airports have achieved the “Category 1” status. These are South Africa, Ethiopia, Cape Verde, and Nigeria.

This means Kenya pays high insurance premiums for aircraft and high leasing costs for aircraft.

In high risk countries, which Kenya belongs to, leasing companies or airlines insist on wet leases in order to ensure the safety of their airplanes. Even when the lessor company agrees on a dry lease arrangement, the insurance premium charged on the aircraft is extremely high. This in turn makes the cost of flying expensive.

American airline Delta had wanted to fly from Atlanta to Nairobi in 2009 but its plans were cancelled by the US government. American giant courier company FedEX has also expressed interest to fly to Kenya once the approvals are granted.

Troubled National carrier Kenya Airways would benefit immensly if Kenya got direct access to Washington.

Direct flights would boost trade between Kenya and the US. Kenya has been witnessed growing interest from American investors, including multinationals such as General Electric and IBM which have set up shop in the country. 

“It will mean so much for us and trade, especially cargo like flowers that will have a direct route to the US market,” says the CS.

Data released last year by the US department of Commerce showed that trade between the US and Kenya doubled in 2014. Exports from the US to Kenya rose to $1.5 billion (Sh137.46bn) from $594.5 million (Sh54.4 billion) the previous year, a 163pc growth.

Freighters say that the resumption of direct flights between the two countries would boost trade through lower charges.

“The multiple connections make the trip longer and compromises on on-time performance as there may be connection delays and missed connections, while multiple handling in the hubs exposes the cargo to mishandling that may reduce or degrade the cargo quality,” Jared Oswago, the divisional manager at Siginon Aviation says.