I flew economy class on Kenya Airways' flagship 787 Dreamliner to see if 'the Pride of Africa' stacks up to the world's top airlines
- Nicknamed "the Pride of Africa," Kenya Airways is the flag carrier of Kenya and a member of SkyTeam Alliance, operating in 53 cities around the world. It recently launched a direct flight from New York to Nairobi, with plans to up to 20 new destinations in Africa, Europe, and Asia in the coming years.
- While Kenya Airways hasn't won any major awards, it's consistently ranked as one of the best African airlines and I'd heard rave reviews from friends who had flown the airline.
- With a flight from Nairobi, Kenya to Dubai, UAE coming up, I booked a ticket on the airline's flagship Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner to see how it stacked up.
- While Kenya Airways isn't quite at the level of top flag carriers like Etihad, Emirates, or Singapore Airlines for luxury, I found that it offers high-quality, friendly service, meals on most routes, complimentary alcohol, and a fleet of planes that is getting newer with the addition of eight 787 Dreamliners starting in 2014 and a proposal to add ten 737-Max planes in the near future.
Kenya Airways has had a rough couple of years.
While it consistently ranks as one of the top airlines in Africa, it has suffered three years of losses due to, according to Bloomberg, "a poorly executed expansion strategy and fuel-hedging contracts that saw it miss out on rock-bottom oil prices." The losses forced the company to cut employees and reduce its fleet size to stabilize.
But things are starting to look up for the carrier, which is majority-owned by the Kenyan government and part-owned by Air France-KLM.
Last October, Kenya Airways launched its first non-stop flight between New York and Nairobi, with plans to launch direct flights to Geneva, Switzerland and Rome, Italy later this year. It's all part of an aggressive five-year plan to add up to 20 new destinations and as many as ten new Boeing 737-Max planes.
I was curious whether service has suffered from all the corporate turbulence and cost-cutting. With a flight from Nairobi, Kenya to Dubai, UAE. coming up, I took a chance and booked a ticket on Flight KQ310 to see how it stacked up. The flight was operated using the airline's flagship Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner.
Here's what it's like to fly "the Pride of Africa":
Good morning! I arrived early to Kenya Airways' hub airport, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi for my flight to Dubai. This entire section was check-in windows for the airline.
There was still a bit of line, but I decided to use one of the dozen self check-in terminals to speed up the process.
I only had to wait for one person before I could drop off my bags. The process was quick and easy and the baggage agent was super friendly, even in the face of a rude customer who didn't understand that his counter was only for bag drop, not check-in.
Take note, friends: Like many airlines these days, Kenya Airways has its own entertainment app so you can watch movies and TV on your device of choice. Great news for those with big tablets.
One quirk of Jomo Kenyatta is that the gates and waiting areas are not directly attached the main concourse. They're each separated into a different room. In order to get in, a gate agent has to check your ticket and passport.
Yes, I almost missed my flight. The Priority Pass-affiliated lounge in JKIA, the Turkish Airways lounge, is a solid fifteen to twenty minute walk to the end of the terminal. I never skip visiting the lounge.
While the ticket check getting into the gate area is a little wonky, it actually speeds up the boarding process considerably.
Since everyone in the waiting area has already been cleared before, you can just get on the plane.
It's hard to show just how big the engines are on this plane. Though the 787-8 is the smallest version of Boeing's Dreamliner, it uses GEnx engines. Those are the same ones that Qantas uses on its 787-9 to fly from the US to Australia.
Source: Airline Geeks
Though business class boards well before economy passengers, some biz class passengers were still getting settled putting their bags in the overhead. It created a bit of a boarding bottleneck.
The 30 business class seats on the 787-8 are not as secluded as those on say, Emirates Airbus A380 planes, but they do look like a joy to sit in. Those are flatbed seats with 74 inches of pitch and 31 inches wide. Just about anybody but Andre the Giant could take a nap.
The plane is big with multiple economy compartments separated by a flight attendants station and bathrooms. I had to walk quite a ways to get to my seat.
At first I thought I had landed in the exit row. Unfortunately, I was in the row directly behind it. Still, look at that legroom! Some devious person at Boeing put the exit row at the divider between the first and second cabin, meaning a few lucky passengers get a king's legroom.
The overhead compartments on the 787-8 are positively huge. I was able to fit three huge backpacks and bags of souvenirs with plenty of room to spare. Bring your big carry-on.
The Dreamliner has lots of special features to make long flights more comfortable. The ambient light in the airplane changes throughout the flight to help your body adjust to your new location. Shortly after boarding, the lighting changed to a cool, calming blue.
There's 204 economy seats total. That's a lot of people to load on to the plane. I suspect its the reason why we took off about 25 minutes later than scheduled.
Prior to take-off, flight attendants came around to hand out headphones for the entertainment system. If you are wondering why my laptop is open, I was working while we were waiting to take off.
Why do airlines continue to use the two-pronged connector for the headphones? Many people carry expensive noise-cancelling headphones these days and would probably like to use them with the entertainment system.
The Kenya Airways 787-8 has more legroom than many international airlines. The seats have 32.2 inches of pitch and 18.5 inches of width. That's bigger than seats on some configurations of the Airbus A380.
The seat back has a hook for you to hang your jacket.
There are two pockets on the seat-back for your stuff. I love this idea. The outer one is mesh so you can see what you put in there at any time. For a very forgetful person like me, it's a lifesaver.
Each seat-back has its own touchscreen entertainment system. The screen is the standard size I see in most economy cabins. But it's not as sharp or as responsive as the Android-powered tablet screens I've seen on some European airlines.
It's most easily navigated using the tethered remote below the screen. The remote is great for playing the included games, but it feels a outdated.
Strangely, prior to takeoff, Kenya Airways plays a lengthy commercial/documentary on the airline and renovations at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The safety video is pretty hilarious. The main character is a goofy, animated lion. It makes a big difference when some effort is put into these videos. People watch so many that it's hard to get them to pay attention.
But since this was my first time on a 787-8 Dreamliner, I figured I should review the information on the safety card. Ok, you caught me: I just took it out for the photo.
A few minutes after take off, flight attendants came around with the cool towelettes. As always, it was appreciated.
The seat comes with two magazines to peruse, Msafiri, Kenya Airways in-flight magazine, and Karibu, the duty-free catalog. I found the articles in MSafiri to be very interesting. There were features on a lot of destinations I don't normally think about (The Gambia, for instance).
The duty-free catalog has all of your usual luxury products like handbags and perfume. There are a few pages dedicated to more local products, like Maasai bead jewelry ...
... and Tanzanite, the blue and violet stone only found in neighboring Tanzania.
Each seat came with a standard pillow ...
... though if you wanted a blanket, you had to ask for it. They were kept stowed in an overhead compartment.
Another Dreamliner innovation is its windows. Thanks to the plane's carbon reinforced plastic fuselage, it can support windows that 30% larger than those on similar aircrafts. They measure at about 19 inches tall. Goodbye, tiny portholes.
Rather than put in physical shades, the Dreamliner has electronic dimming technology. There are five different levels of tinting, from completely dark ...
... to a midrange blue shade ...
... to completely wide open. The windows are perfect for taking pictures of the landscape below. The Dreamliner's wing looks massive up close.
The entertainment system features 100 movies and 48 hours of TV shows. One thing I appreciated was the selection of modern African films. Most of these movies I would have no idea they existed, so it is cool to see.
There's also plenty of games to play. While I've never tested out the multiplayer features in-flight — I have yet to see other players in a virtual room — I always enjoy a round of Sudoku or Tetris.
The tray table is foldable, so you have it open halfway for drinks ...
or open completely for meals or working on a laptop.
An example of the ultra-friendly, personable service I experienced on Kenya Airways: Beverage service includes all alcoholic drinks, from wine to spirits. When I asked the flight attendant for wine, she cracked a joke and handed me two bottles without me even asking for it.
At the same time, we got mixed nuts, grown in Kenya. These were crunchy and fresh macadamia nuts and cashews.
The tray table was big enough to support having my 13-inch MacBook Pro open completely. Most of the time, working on a laptop in an economy seat is cramped. I didn't feel that way on this flight.
In addition to the USB charger on every seat back, the economy seats have 110-volt AC power between each seat. That's a rarity outside of business class. It meant I could charge my laptop.
I went to go stretch my legs. The galley near the bathrooms in the back is very spacious. I could do some yoga in there if the attendants didn't throw me out the exit door first.
The plane has six lavatories in the economy cabin. It seems like a lot, but for 204 passengers, it's necessary.
The lavatory is lit with the same mood lighting as the cabin. It was very clean when I visited halfway through the flight and then again towards the end.
Each bathroom comes equipped with a hand lotions and soap.
Dinner was served right after I got back from the bathroom. Unfortunately, there was an incident where a tray of food came flying out of the cart and spilled on the aisle. They cleaned it up in no time.
The only options available by the time they reached the second cabin of economy was lamb or vegetarian. All of the chicken had run out, a bummer for my partner who isn't a fan of lamb.
The vegetarian meal was fried rice with vegetables and caramelized onions. It was passable, if unspectacular.
My lamb, on the other hand, was excellent. It was a curry lamb stew with rice. The lamb was tender and soft with only a mild gamey flavor.
It came with a cold pasta salad and veggies. It was a refreshing counterpoint to the heavy taste of the curry.
Since I figured I'd be eating for a bit, I decided to put on some entertainment. Weirdly enough, every movie or TV show you put on starts with a long commercial for Kenya Airways. Not a fan of this.
I am, however, a fan of David Attenborough. I watched a nature documentary about the evolution of flying insects while I waited for the attendants to collect our trays.
First, came coffee. I've heard horror stories about the water used on flights for coffee, but I went for it anyways. Kenyan coffee is legendary. I have no idea if they used beans from Kenya, but it tasted better than most airline coffees.
Dessert was a weird semi-sweet pastry filled with fruit jam and nuts. It was well-made but not a flavor I enjoyed. I only ate a bite or two.
A couple more hours and another beverage service later and we were landing in Dubai. I barely noticed the time and felt less fatigued than usual after a long flight. Maybe it was a placebo effect or maybe it's that the air inside Dreamliners are pressurized to make passengers feel like they are at 6,000 feet of altitude instead of 8,000 feet on other planes. The cabin air also has higher humidity.
So what did I think of Kenya Airways? The airline gets a big thumbs up from me. Most American passengers will experience the airline on an international route, almost all of which are on the flagship Dreamliner. That experience was second-to-none in economy class.
While the rest of Kenyan Airways' current fleet varies between older 737-800s and the Embraer-190, the airline gets major kudos for its eager, friendly staff, free alcoholic beverages, and full meals on most flights. And even though my flight left late, we arrived ahead of schedule. That's some Kenyan Airways' magic.
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