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International flights resume in East Africa

COVID-19 lockdowns in East Africa brought air travel to a halt for months. Now, airlines in the region are returning to the air.

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Kenya Airways planes are seen through a window as the Jomo Kenyatta international airport reopens after flights were suspended following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 1, 2020. 

Credit:

Njeri Mwangi/Reuters

COVID-19 lockdowns in East Africa brought air travel to a halt for months. Now, airlines in the region are returning to the air.

This month, Kenya and Rwanda lifted a ban on international flights, joining Tanzania and Ethiopia.

“The measures that we have taken will ensure that we completely limit the risk of transmission of this virus,” said Kenya Airways CEO Allan Kilavuka during a recent press conference.

Related: After months without work, Uganda's boda boda drivers hit the road 

Kenya, an international transit hub, banned international commercial flights in March due to the coronavirus, putting extra pressure on the already struggling Kenya Airways. Last year, Kenyan lawmakers voted to nationalize the airline due to mounting debt.

Despite the reopening, many of the airline’s transit routes will remain closed, including a new flight from Nairobi to New York that launched in 2018.

“This is the new normal. We are following traffic and demand. As demand picks up, we also increase traffic or we introduce other destinations. And when demand drops we will also respond."

Allan Kilavuka, CEO, Kenya Airways

“This is the new normal. We are following traffic and demand. As demand picks up, we also increase traffic or we introduce other destinations. And when demand drops we will also respond,” Kilavuka said.

Related: South Africa's rising COVID-19 caseload threatens continent 

Still, many are relieved to see the resumption of international flights at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

“From where we started, with zero international traffic, we are having regular services. So in terms of percentage increase, traffic movement has been exponential,” said Gilbert Kibe, director general of Kenya’s Civil Aviation Authority.

He says every part of the country’s aviation ecosystem has had to adjust to the pandemic.

“Passenger experience, from leaving the transport they arrived in at the airport, to entry, check-in, baggage drop-off, waiting in lounges, entering the aircraft,” he explained.

Travelers from more than 120 countries are now allowed to fly in and out of Kenya, provided they have a negative coronavirus PCR test in hand. That includes the US, with the exception of California, Texas and Florida.

Still, reopening is only the first step to helping Africa’s aviation industry, which was already struggling before the pandemic.

Related: Africa must invest 'in human capital' to fight the coronavirus

“Many of the airlines across the continent are in need of dire need of financial support to be able to continue their existence."

Raphael Kuuchi, International Air Transport Authority

“Many of the airlines across the continent are in dire need of financial support to be able to continue their existence,” said Raphael Kuuchi of the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) during a recent video conference

“We want the African governments to come in and support the African aviation industry with cash injections to start with,” Kuuchi continued, estimating that the continent’s aviation industry could lose $6 billion in revenue this year.

Government support has been a saving grace for the nationally owned Uganda Airlines, says Roger Wamara, commercial director of Uganda Airlines. The small airline relaunched in 2019, with ambitions of beginning flights to Europe this year.

“Regarding staff, we haven’t laid off any staff. We are doing cuts on other elements of work. Of course, because you aren’t operating, there are less charges there, there are less expenses there."

Roger Wamara, commercial director, Uganda Airlines

Regarding staff, we haven’t laid off any staff. We are doing cuts on other elements of work. Of course, because you aren’t operating, there are less charges there, there are less expenses there,” Wamara said.

Uganda, however, has yet to join neighboring East African countries in reopening its airways, which could put Uganda Airlines at a disadvantage in the competitive industry, Wamara said.

In the meantime, the airline has been flying special charter and repatriation flights. Mostly for Ugandans stuck abroad.

“So, it is better than it could have been if we weren’t doing anything at all. Keeps our equipment working. Keeps our pilots active so when it opens, we are able to hit the ground running,” Wamara explained.

It also gives Uganda Airways an opportunity to adjust to the new coronavirus reality, which requires robust measures and operational changes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Even minor details like reusable metal utensils for in-flight meals will have to change to plastic ones. 

Well-known Ugandan musician Eddy Kenzo got a taste of what traveling during the coronavirus could look like in the region last month when he was able to take a repatriation flight on Uganda Airways after being stuck in the Ivory Coast for four months.

“Of course you are a bit nervous because of the coronavirus,” he said. “But we had to wear masks and all that.”

Overall, he gave the airline glowing remarks.

He says the only downside was having to spend two weeks in mandatory quarantine at a hotel after returning to Uganda.

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