As KQ0002 took off from Nairobi last Sunday night there was a moment when I couldn’t help thinking ‘what a lot of fuss for one flight’.
We had gathered at the airport earlier than usual, in anticipation of extra security and much pomp and ceremony to match.
Having listened to speeches from the Kenya Airways CEO, the US Ambassador to Kenya and other dignitaries, we were welcomed by traditional drums and dancers as we got our first taste of Nairobi’s TSA-mandated extra security for this flight.
It was certainly thorough, and with a little more practice and time it will smooth out. Luckily the goodwill in the room was such that any inconveniences really didn’t matter.
BOEING 787 DREAMLINER
We finally boarded the splendid Kenya Airways’ flagship Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taxied along the runway to pull alongside a brass band and President Uhuru Kenyatta himself, who bade us farewell, handing over a Kenyan flag for us to literally fly the flag to New York.
At first blush, one might think, ‘What a lot of fuss’. But somewhere over the Atlantic, snuggled under my fluffy Kenya Airways blanket, it all started to make sense.
In a way, I decided, it was even rather romantic. The 787 is a state-of-the-art technological marvel, but in many ways this journey harkened back to a different time, long past. Like some sort of magnificent sail ship, carrying special envoys to chart a new route to some distant land.
A silk road of the skies, creating a completely fresh trade route to bring new possibilities home, expanding the horizon and changing the course of history.
Yes, it’s just a new route. It is only one plane. London flies direct to a dozen US destinations many times every day. Ditto Paris and Amsterdam.
South Africa already flies to New York non-stop. Singapore has the longest flight to the Big Apple, the Middle East carriers the most luxurious.
But none of that matters, because to view this as just a simple flight is to miss the point.
This new route will enrich not only Kenya, but East Africa as a whole. It will add an extra, vital spoke to Nairobi’s modernised airport, creating a new gateway to the region from what remains the world’s powerhouse economy, the United States, and its financial capital, New York.
Given time and codeshare flights, the dream of unlocking the rest of the United States via partners like Delta, or perhaps JetBlue, will no doubt be realised. This is so much more than a simple flight.
As always with these trips, I left Nairobi with a keen sense that I had only scratched the surface. Sitting here in New York, having breakfast in my apartment while sipping Safari Tea from Kenya, purchased at the airport, there are many highlights.
The one word that kept coming up again and again during my week there was ‘vibrant’.
It applies perfectly to Nairobi: the youthful get-up-and-go, the feeling of exciting change, the pride people are taking in their surroundings and the energy they are putting into their own lives.
I met Nairobians rich and poor, from across the social spectrum, and enjoyed every minute of meeting such thoughtful, warm and gentle people.
I don’t mean gentle in a wimpish kind of way; there is something calm and purposeful about this city that is unlike other large cities I’ve visited in Africa.
It wears its appeal lightly, drawing you in with a genteel persuasiveness.
Of course, not everything is perfect, and Kenya faces serious challenges. Bubbling under the surface is always a hint of political unease, understandable after the complexities of the last election.
The prospect of fresh taxes on mobile money vexes an industry that can currently lay legitimate claim to being among the world’s most advanced.
The fight against corruption is either being won or lost, depending on who you ask, but all agree it is both ongoing and needed. But to ignore the positives would seem obtuse.
I was also highly impressed by the many journalists I met in Kenya. The media is vibrant and vital; the discourse smart and informed.
I found myself at ease discussing topics that I was unsure would be up for debate. I also found the business people I met, from street traders to CEOs, to be focused, creative and determined.
Above all, Kenya felt to me to be a country at peace: a place at ease with its past, excited about its future; aware of its shortcomings but more than resourceful enough to tackle them.
And where else can you stand on a helipad at the top of a city centre skyscraper, and look out towards a park that contains lions, rhinos and giraffes?
I had arrived in Nairobi with relatively few expectations, but it confounded all of them. This may sound trite, but it really isn’t meant to be: the best part of all was that, wherever I went, I felt I was among friends. I will be back. I need to re-stock my Safari Tea supplies for a start.
Mr Richard Quest is a CNN news anchor.