Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Trip Report: Kenya Airways, Dar Es Salaam to Seychelles via Nairobi (January 2014)

A Trip Report: Kenya Airways
Dar Es Salaam to Seychelles via Nairobi
comment below and let me know your thoughts :) 

There are many airlines to choose from while travelling to and within Africa, but most passengers stick to the top three: South African, Ethiopian, and Kenyan.  Out of these three, Kenyan Airways is the smallest but seems to be the one that is strategically growing very fast.  While all three airlines are part of alliances - South African and Ethiopian are part of Star Alliance while Kenyan is part of SkyTeam - only Kenyan seems to be using the alliances to expand its reach across the world.  While South African and Ethiopian are adding new destinations and routes, Kenyan is looking through partnerships and alliances to grow their network.  They connect with Delta and KLM through their SkyTeam alliance, and recently they announced a partnership with Etihad to increase the connections to the Middle East.  The increase in partnerships means Kenya Airways can focus on becoming a better African airline, which some people will like; but it will also mean that its reach is limited and this some people may not like.  I write this all to say is that we flew from the U.S. to Tanzania and then was looking to fly from Tanzania to the Seychelles (my flight to Tanzania was in December 2013 and to the Seychelles was January 2014).  Instead of choosing one airline, we choose 2 different African airlines because 1) I wanted to experience both airlines but also 2) what I had mentioned above in that an airline can either be a great regional carrier or a great international carrier, but its hard to be both.  

We flew from the U.S. to Tanzania on Ethiopian Airlines (a great flight which I reviewed in an earlier post) and we choose Ethiopian because it had the best connections and timings from the U.S. to Africa; the reason for this is that Ethiopian flies non-stop from America to Africa.  Kenya Airways does not fly to the U.S. but instead partners with its SkyTeam partner to connect from the U.S. to Africa; however, there are many stops and the timings are very inconvenient so that is why we did not fly with them.  When we were looking at flying intra-Africa, from Tanzania to the Seychelles, we choose Kenya Airways because they had a good service with good timings and connections (and lots of options); Ethiopian was priced competitively with Kenyan but the timings and connections were bad.  Kenya Airways bills itself as the 'Pride of Africa' and after experiencing the service, they are doing Africa well.

Booking:  Based in the U.S., it was hard booking an intra-African flight on Kenya Airways.  While the website is very nice, it is a little clunky and not as fast or as modern as other sites (such as Ethiopian).  Also, for some reason the Kenya Airways site would not take my American credit card; when I inquired about this they informed me that I could put the reservation on hold and pay for the ticket in a ticket-office within 24 hours - very convenient if you are within Africa, not so convenient when you are in America.  Because of all these reasons, I booked my flight through a travel website.  While Kenya Airways has many flights from DAR to NBO (Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport), they only have one flight from NBO to SEZ (Seychelles International Airport in Victoria).  Depending on which flight you choose out of DAR, you can either have a very long or very short connection in NBO to the next flight. 

After I had booked my flight on the travel site, I contacted the airline to ensure the reservation and the details were correct.  As I previously did not know that Kenyan flew many flights from DAR to NBO, I was unaware that the 11-hour layover I had in Kenya was unwarranted; in fact it was the airline itself that informed me of this.  (I will come to that part later on under 'service').  Because all this happened within 4 hours, I was able to cancel my original booking and rebook myself on the flights with the shorter connection:

KQ489 departing DAR @ 5:10am and arriving NBO @ 6:30am (using Embraer 190)
KQ450 departing NBO @ 9:05am and arriving SEZ @ 13:15/1:15pm (using Boeing 737-800)

Service:  Kenya Airways has excellent service, both prior to an on-board the flight.  After I had booked my ticket through the travel website, I contacted the airline to ensure the reservation was confirmed and the details were correct.  I had contacted the airline via email and within 2 hours I had a detailed response from a Kenyan Airways representative.  The quickness and the detailed level of response was very impressive.  The travel website had originally booked me on a 11-hour layover in NBO but the Kenya Airways representative informed me that other Kenya Airways flights were available with shorter connection times and they had plenty of availability.  I was able to cancel my original booking and book the shorter connection times.  I later emailed the airline about seat assignments and emailed one week prior to my flight to confirm my booking, and each time the responses were quick and detailed.  A great customer service touch.  On board, the great customer service continued.

On-board:  The first flight was KQ489 which was an early morning 1hr 20min flight on a Embraer 190.  The plane was already parked at the gate when we arrived and boarding commenced for an on-time departure.  Once on-board, the aircraft looked new and clean.  There were leather seats (with a nice seat pitch) and each seat had a personal TV screen -- on an Embraer! 

Note: only one side of the plane's PTV's had been turned on; I was sitting on the turned off side so I asked the FA to turn it on, and they said due to the short flying time they could not -- luckily there were empty seats around me on the working side so I switched over

Even though it was a short flying time, the FA's still served breakfast along with coffee, tea, and juices.  The breakfast was simple with fruit and a croissant (in a box-type presentation), but it was a nice touch for the early morning flight and the FA's were very cheerful and smiled throughout the early morning flight.  We landed on-time at NBO and parked at the terminal and deplaned; those with connections were told to take the stairs up to the terminal while passengers staying in Kenya were asked to board a bus to take them to the luggage and customs.

Our next flight was 3hr 10min flight - KQ450 - on a Boeing 737-800.  This plane looked nice from the outside, but unfortunately it looked old and used from the inside.  I know that Kenya Airways was in the process of upgrading their fleet, and I don't think this plane had received its upgrade.  The seat pitch was tight, the seats were not leather but were cloth and seemed worn out, and there were no personal screens (how can a 1hr flight on an Embraer be so nice while a 3hr flight on a Boeing 737 be so bad --- i have experienced this on other airlines and it shocks me every time!)  The plane did have video screens running down the main aisle, but nothing was shown on it except for the flight path.  

On this flight, we were served lunch about 20 minutes after we took off and the lunch was decent.  Drinks, tea, and coffee were served as well, but after the trays were cleared there wasn't really that much to do for the remaining 2+hours (water was served drink refills were available upon request).  The seat pitch was very tight and the seats were uncomfortable so it also made sleeping uncomfortable as well.  We landed at SEZ on time at 13:15 and proceeded to deplane and walk to the terminal (Kenya Airways operates one flight from NBO to SEZ and only flies 4-times a week - Tues, Thurs, Sat, Sun - so this plane has one hour to deplane, clean, and reload passengers before it returns back to NBO).

Transit:  Note: most of the planes at NBO are parked at stands and are not connected to jet-bridgets.  Only the European-bound flights seemed to be using the jet-bridges while everyone else deplaned using the stairs and took the stairs up to the terminal.  When we were to board, we took those same stairs back down to the plane.  There is not a lot to do in NBO.  There are many gates and a lot of passengers, but the terminal seems very narrow.  While it never felt claustrophobic, it certainly did not feel spacious (note: this was the time when a terminal at NBO had caught fire so all the flights had to be put into a single terminal so everything was a bit more cramped than usual, but never chaotic).  In this terminal, there was free wi-fi and while it wasn't the greatest speed it was free and did provide enough strength to send a basic email.  The terminal resembled a long hallway - with coffee shops/restaurants on either end.  note: the duty free shops accepted international currency and sold coke/sprite/diet coke at cheaper prices than the restaurant!  When you walked from one end to the other, on one side was the runway and the gates along with some duty-free shops, and on the terminal side were the restrooms and connections for passengers coming in from the outside. (note: the restrooms were small/tiny and did feel claustrophobic, especially when a plane came in and all the passengers went to the restroom at the same time!)   The duty-free shops were small and basic, but provided local souvenirs that you could purchase.  Other than that, there was nothing much to do but wait (if I had a longer wait time, I think I would've become very board very quickly!)  After a while, they called our flight and we proceeded to the boarding area (through another security check) and waited for our flight.   This is where a bit of confusion took place.

Once you enter security, you can either proceed to the right or left depending on what gate you departing out of; however there was no clear direction as to where passengers should be sitting or going so those who should have sat on the right were sitting on the left and vice versa.  This meant that different flights were being called on the announcement and then airline representatives were going through the gates announcing the correct flights they were boarding (it happened many times that they called 'boarding' but failed to mention which flight was boarding until you got down the stairs and they checked the boarding passes, which meant fighting the other crowds who were coming down to go back up to sit in the waiting area --- i'm sure it had to do with the terminal fire and the chaos surrounding that, but it was still a mess.)  Finally, our flight was called and we proceeded down the stairs to the runway and then walked to our waiting plane.

Overall:  In the end, it was a nice and pleasant journey on Kenya Airways.  I got to experience both the new and old Kenya Airways, and while I prefer the new airplane, both had good customer service and attentive and smiling FA's - and to me that is what matters most.  Yes, new planes with fancy gadgets is very nice (and makes the time go by so much quicker) but I would much rather have good, quality customer service on the ground and in the sky and that is what Kenya Airways has.  I am not sure if Kenya Airways will start operating to the U.S. - their Dreamliner 787 is coming into service shortly so service to the U.S. may be in the near future - and I am not sure it is the right move for them as they are the smaller of the African 3 (South African, Ethiopian, and Kenya).  If they do expand, hopefully they will be able to maintain their good customer service both on ground and in the sky.

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