Kenya Airways – The Pride of Africa

Kenya Airways 777-200
Kenya Airways 777-200

If you want a quick opinion and don’t wish to read any further, Kenya Airways, while branded as “the pride of Africa”, is a solidly average airline experience.  If this is all it takes to be the pride of the continent, they’re doing a fairly good job.

My journey began with KLM – Royal Dutch Airlines in Venice for a two hour hop to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.  As a major SkyTeam hub airport for the combined Air France – KLM brand, Schiphol is a bustling hive of activity where travelers from all over the world come to make connecting flights.  The scene was decidedly busier upon crossing the pseudo-Schengen border at passport control.

As VCE-AMS is a European “internal” flight, you “exit” the European Union within the Airport.  International passengers making other international connections don’t have to “enter” the EU and can relax entirely within a sterile international terminal during layovers.  This concept is all too familiar for frequent globe-trotters, but can be a bit perplexing for newbies who might think going for a walk outside the airport during a connection is as easy as finding the exit door.  Not quite.

Despite having already cleared security at my origin airport, and remaining within a sterile area the entire journey, prior to boarding Kenya Airways flight 117 it was necessary to be screened again.  This we can also attribute to the design of Schiphol Airport, where in the international terminal, passengers are deposited directly from aircraft hailing from all corners of the globe.  Origin countries may not screen to the same standard, making it necessary to be rescreened prior to boarding, or entering the Schengen terminal.  Some airports will screen everyone at the same time before granting them access to the terminal, but at Schiphol they screen for each flight, at the gate, before boarding.

The boarding process was a bit chaotic.  As we all “boarded” by having our boarding passes scanned after the security check, the only thing left to do was wait in the holding area for the announcement to proceed down the jetway.  Try as they might to invite business class and SkyTeam elite status members the chance to board first, it was pretty much everyone for themselves.  No staff were on hand to enforce the announcements boarding by row number or class of service so we all just walked directly onto the plane.

3x3x3 Main Cabin Layout
3x3x3 Main Cabin Layout

At the threshold of the main door of this 777-200 we were greeted by courteous cabin staff performing a cursory check of our seat assignment and pointing us in the right direction.  After the familiar right-turn into economy class, my pre selected aisle seat 11F came with generous leg room between it and the bulkhead.  But this would prove problematic later in the flight.

We were treated to an on-time push-back from the gate, and a quick taxi to the runway for take-off.  The pre-flight safety video had not yet finished when it was abruptly interrupted by the flight-deck advising cabin crew to take their seats for departure.

Shortly after the fasten-seat-belt light was turned off, it became clear that the bulkhead row with generous legroom wasn’t going to be as pleasant an experience as I had imagined.  Because of the space, which was really just enough to stretch your legs out and put them flat on the bulkhead, other passengers frequently took the liberty to use that space as a walk through to get from one side of the cabin to the other.  Attempts to put a stop to this were met with mixed reactions, some hostile, some understanding.  Frequently I found myself interrupted either by people wildly stepping over me, or tapping me on the shoulder asking for permission to pass.  Either blocking or advising to go around were my only choices.  Only one guy took issue, but in the end backed down and walked two more steps to pass through the galley.  Proximity to the lavatory was also a bit bothersome for the same reason.  My extra leg room is not a place to stand and wait for the toilet to be vacant.

The in-flight entertainment system worked well enough, and had a great selection of movies and TV shows.  The system was slow to respond, so can’t really be called “on demand”.  You make a selection, and wait… eventually your selection will start.  The technical name for the system is NVOD, or “Near Video on Demand”.  It doesn’t really matter much in the context of this review however, as mine was proved useless by the non-functional headphone jack.  Thank goodness I brought my iPad.

In flight meal Amsterdam - Nairobi
In flight meal, Amsterdam – Nairobi

In flight service was friendly and efficient.  Choice of three meals: vegetarian, fish, or chicken.  I opted for the chicken.  Kenya Airways has a unique way of serving the in-flight meal.  Everyone gets a tray first, which has your bread, salad, and dessert.  Another cart then comes by serving the hot meal and your drink.  For me at the front of the main cabin this happened rather quickly.  But I imagine as the drinks take some time, folks in the back would be kept waiting for a while for the crew to meet up in the middle and assist to speed up the process.  Food quality was good, and quite tasty, yet sparsely portioned.

After the meal, due to some miracle, I was actually able to get a good 2-3 hours sleep.  To prevent the constant interruption of people using my personal space as a shortcut and toilet waiting area, I was able to quite comfortably rest my feet on the bulkhead at a high enough angle so no one could walk over.  My seat buddy in 11D and I made an agreement that neither of us would allow the space to be utilized as a pass-through.  No one attempted again until the final rush for the lavatory as we began our descent towards Nairobi after breakfast.

About breakfast, if you can call it that… consisted of a dinner roll with butter and jam, and a yoghurt.  Thats it.  Minus points…  However, special request for decaf coffee was granted.

Nairobi – Jomo Kenyatta International Airport arrival was a bit bizarre, but this is due to the devastating fire last August which put a serious dent in capacity.  Passengers terminating their journey in Nairobi deplaned through the main door and took a bus to a temporary arrivals hall.  Passengers with connecting flights proceeded through the business class cabin to the forward door and used a jetway to access the international terminal.  Being in the front of the main cabin I was able to get very clear directions from the cabin crew while we waited for the business class cabin to empty, but for the rest of the aircraft there was only one announcement and I’m sure half the passengers ended up getting on the bus when they should have proceeded to their connecting flights.

Morning view of Kilimanjaro/Uhuru, at 19341 feet, is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.
Morning view of Kilimanjaro/Uhuru, at 19341 feet, is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

Project Greenfield is the name for the ambitious expansion plan currently in the works for the Nairobi Airport.  When complete in 2016, this nearly $700 million dollar project will finally bring this major African hub into the 21 century.  The current terminal is typical of other airports in Africa.  Dark, dank, hot-humid, worn.  Ticketing counters issuing manual boarding passes due to chronically malfunctioning equipment.  Crazy features like bathrooms you can only access via narrow stairways, and security checks into “secure” dedicated boarding areas easily accessible by other dedicated boarding areas for different flights.  This thankfully short layover was uneventful.

The flight from Nairobi to Lilongwe with a stopover in Lusaka was an experience which mirrored the first.  Only difference was the equipment type (767-300).

So I’d say the overall impression is positive.  Kenya Airways lives up to expectations as a SkyTrax rated 3 star airline.  I can’t say I was impressed by anything imparticular, and there are certainly interior cosmetic issues with aging equipment that no one appreciates.  But I can say without a doubt that I would not mind flying Kenya Airways again the next time business brings me to Africa.

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