Category Archives: Kenya domestic tourist

Oman Air launches Nairobi flights

Product launches seem to follow an established template: bright flashy lights, cakes, and ribbons, and occasionally a tame wild animal, concluded by a rehashed speech from a government functionary. But no wildlife was present as Oman Air officially launched their four times a week flight to Nairobi at the Kempinski Villa Rosa Hotel on 29th March 2017. The inaugural flight to Nairobi had arrived the previous day and it was received by local Kenya airport and Government authorities.

Importantly, however, was the interest generated of Oman as a destination and indeed a hub for travelers to the Middle East and beyond. The airline’s Deputy CEO and VP –Commercial, Abdulrahman Al Busaidy proved not only an eloquent spokesman for his company but a worthy ambassador of The Sultanate of Oman. The interest of those present at the launch was piqued as few had ever thought of Oman as a holiday destination let alone a hub. Most travelers from Kenya have traditionally chosen the Arab carriers that utilize Dubai (Emirates), Doha (Qatar), Abu Dhabi (Etihad) as well as Sharjah (Air Arabia) which all market themselves’ as glitzy shopping and commercial destinations.

Oman Air doesn’t pretend to be a Gulf Major carrier. Currently Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are the undisputed ME3 giants who are now subject to what has been perceived by many to be protectionist measures from the USA and the UK in the guise of the ‘laptop ban’. Al Busaidy attributes such measures to the incapability of carriers from those countries to compete on services available at their fantastic airports and modern fleet and services. While no US carrier serves the Middle East, the Gulf carriers operate multiple flights to any of the major hubs in the Middle East.

Oman Air is leveraging the long historical ties between Kenya and Oman which date back to the days when the Portuguese ruled much of the East Coast of Africa. Indeed the Sultan of Oman’s army flushed out the Portuguese from Fort Jesus in the 17th Century and the cultural exchanges and inter-marriage with the local coastal people gave rise to Africa’s most widely spoken language, Kiswahili.

Currently, the airline flies to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar with Nairobi being the 55th destination of the airline’s growing route development. With a popular in-flight entertainment and free Wi-Fi service on most of its aircraft, Oman Air now has a fleet of 47 aircraft with a mix of Embraer Regional Jets (ERJ) for local and regional flights, Boeing 737s for short-haul routes and Airbus A330’s and now the Boeing 787 Dreamliners for the long haul flights.

Indeed two of the Dreamliners were leased from Kenya’s national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ’s) as part of fleet rationalization of KQ’s ongoing Operation Pride restructuring. Both airlines are expected to conclude a code-share agreement by mid-April 2017. Oman Air has also chosen not to align itself with any of the major airline alliances such as Sky Team, Star Alliance or One World but instead code shares flights with Emirates, Ethiopian, Garuda Indonesia, KLM, Royal Jordanian, Saudia, Sri Lankan Airlines, Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines.

Muscat as a base for Oman Air provides the entry point to this traditional conservative Sultanate which has a rich history in preserving its culture (Islamic architecture, all-white buildings, Dhow making, Painting shows, the Muscat Festival and the Khareef Festival held in Salalah in July and August annually) and environment punctuated with over a 100km coastline.

Nairobi will serve as the entry point to popular tourist destinations at the Kenyan Coast and the wildlife marvels of the national parks in the Mara, Tsavo, and Amboseli. Tourism between Kenya and Oman is expected to grow as the airline also envisages Mombasa as a future destination. Coupled with a fairly liberal visa regime (Note that Dubai visa holders get automatic entry into Oman), Oman Air is hoping to prise away traffic from the other carriers especially to the big hubs of the Middle East, India, and China. With introductory fares of $350 to Muscat and $485 to Guangzhou return, this could prove to make for interesting times for travelers to and from Nairobi.

Oman Air indeed epitomizes Oman as a country, its aspirations, culture, history and modernity and its approach to tying itself to both its past and the future as it opens up new destinations. The Nairobi route will be operated by a Boeing 737-800 and the airline’s growth and development strategy plans for 70 aircraft (currently they are 47) and 75 destinations by the year 2020. The four times a week flight (WY722) )leaves Nairobi at 00:45 (on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) and operates non-stop and is designed for an early morning arrival in Muscat that enables connections to other 50 destinations.

Oman’s currency is the Rial and OMR 1 = ~$ 2.6, and OMR 1 is ~Kshs 267.

First Class: Kenya Railways vs SGR

This is the first class cabin of the lunatic express, the 120-year-old Kenya Railways line (operated by Rift Valley Railways – RVR), that the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is meant to improve on. The cabins are about 40 years old; they are mostly used by tourists or adventurous travelers and families taking scenic journeys to and from the Coast or Rift Valley.
It was disappointing to see pictures from Kenya Railways of what #SGR “first class” will be – it looks like a third class with swivels seats – this after a $3.2 billion mega-project?. Yes, the trains will move faster, but apparently, they won’t go too fast because this is Kenya where they may encounter people or wildlife on the tracks. 

By looking at this chart of train cabin seats in China, KR is a correct, but the first class of China and the new SGR is not the same as the first class on the old (RVR)/Kenya Railways. China has first, second, and business class (which has lie flat seats) like an aircraft – but no economy class.

What we know as the first class of the old Kenya railways, qualifies as a luxurious “sleeper coach” in China which offers privacy and comfort. SGR Journeys will be faster, perhaps 5 hours from Nairobi to Mombasa compared to the current train service by RVR which takes 15-20 hours. The  train is also used by hundreds of residents who live in small towns along the railway and who will appreciate the improved new cabins.

But will Kenya Railways offer some new sleeper cabins to improve on the old railway service? The Kenya Economic Survey 2016 shows there has been a continuous decline in rail passenger indicators of journey, passenger-km and revenue. The major reason is prioritizing on the freight, which is more profitable than passengers’ services hence the available locomotives are prioritized to freight.

Understanding African Flyers

Last year, Sabre released a report on African flyers and how airlines could reach and serve them better or enhance the flying experience. It broke down how nationals of four countries – Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt – perceived different aspects of flying including costs, in-flight preferences, pain points, experiences, and decisions on whether to use local or foreign airlines.


It also looked at if the introduction of a single passport would impact traveling across the continent. The challenge of getting a visa was cited as a major hindrance for Africans seeking to travel more alongside costs, lack of routes, safety, and stressful flights.

 

Conclusions: 

  • More airlines need in-flight Wi-Fi.
  • Many airlines have uncomfortable flights, and passengers will pay more to get better experiences. They are willing to spend ($104), six times the global average, for this.
  • The cost of flying is still high (national taxes are a major reason for this)
  • Removal of visa’s or the ability to obtain a visa on-arrival will have more impact than a pan-African or an African Union passport.

And specifically for Kenya Airways,

Kenyans passengers would (extra) pay for:

  • Inflight Wi-Fi
  • Extra luggage

Kenyans will choose KQ over a foreign airline for:

  • Cheaper tickets
  • Superior customer service

RwandAir Airbus A330

After almost three hours winding through about a dozen checkpoints and queues inside Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, it was quite a pleasant sight to get to see daylight and planes lined up.

Three days before, Rwandair flight 200 from Kigali to Lagos was operated by a B737-700 and 201 from  Lagos to Kigali was also meant to be on a similar aircraft, but parked in at the gate  was an  unusually large Rwandair plane.

RwandAir recently acquired an Airbus A330-200 (christened Ubumwe) and with another Airbus A330-300 due in November, they are making a big splash about the planes. The new aircraft even featuring in minister’s speech in Lagos and on TV and newspaper advertisements about Rwandair connecting Africa (never mind that Ethiopian, KQ, SAA, Arik have had similar wide-body twin jets for a decade).rwanda-a330-2

On this day, many of the electronic systems at the Lagos  airport were down, and virtually everything was done manually, with boarding passes written by hand. At check-in, I had asked for an aisle seat and the man at the counter nodded in acknowledgment, but when I looked at my boarding pass, my seat number was “F/S” – as was everyone else’s – this meant “free-seating”.

The airline staff at the boarding gate first ushered in the passengers who were in business class, and this included Clare Akamanzi,  Head, Strategy & Policy Unit, Office of the Rwanda President, who had been down in the queues, and gone through the whole laborious check in process like an ordinary passenger, including having her suitcase opened, then wrapped for security purposes. The airport staff said she was a Minister but clearly she did not behave like any minister they might have seen.

Other passengers were then allowed on board, with through the jet bridge that had been placed at a mid-cabin door and were then directed to pick any seat in economy class. The new plane has two large economy class cabins, a small premium economy one, and a business one near the front, for a total capacity of 274 passengers. Everyone in economy flopped into a seat relieved at the abundance bin space and many empty seats on the flight.

Points about the flight, using this borrowed format (via AU traveller)  

Airline review: RwandAir economy class, Lagos to Kigali

The airline operates a dream miles program on a visa card, but this was only my first round trip with RwandAir. The airline is also not part of any miles alliance partnership now.

rwanda-a330CLASS: Economy, window in the third row of the second cabin.

DURATION: 4h 30m.

FREQUENCY: WB 201 between Lagos to Kigali is 4X a week: Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun  (12:00 17:30)

THE SEAT: The configuration here is 2-4-2 in both economy cabins and many of the seats were empty. All the seats have personal touch screen entertainment displays, with light and flight attendant controls. There is also a USB  charger next to the screen.

ENTERTAINMENT: The touch screen system was quite nimble. My first set of headphones, given out after take-off did not work, but the second one did. You touch the screen and pick out  movies, TV clips, and games. The selection is rather thin, and you have to pause to escape from a menu but the system is nice once you’re used to it.

The touchscreen menu options are in 6 languages – English, Kinyarwanda, French, Swahili Arabic, and Mandarin?/Chinese. There were other menu options like gambling games, a kids selection with games and movies and a music selection – with pop hits, African, Classical etc. I flipped back and forth between “Batman vs. Superman” and “Avatar” movies, and the system allows you to resume from where you left off in any movie or game.

BAGGAGE: This was dictated by Murtala airport where there is an elaborate  but time-consuming luggage procedure of weighing, tagging, scanning, searching physically, then wrapping the bags . A friend who had flown in from Kigali with two small backpacks was now told he could only carry one bag on board and check the other one as luggage on this RwandAir flight. We all lost our luggage and filed reports in Nairobi and the luggage has just been delivered (two days later).

COMFORT: Both the RwandAir legs between Lagos and Kigali are afternoon flights that arrive in the evening and match morning arrivals and night departures from Kigali, Rwanda.

SERVICE: The flight took off about twenty minutes late and there were several apologies made during P/A announcements to passengers.  In addition to the entertainment system, there is a Wi-Fi service on board though I was not able to connect. But @LucyMbabazi did on the very next RwandAir Airbus A330 flight and she happily reported on that, and other niceties  like a  massage chair. lucya330biz

 FOOD: There was a chicken or beef option with lunch about an hour into the flight.  The crew had two meal services sessions, one with the meal, a beverage before touchdown from which they did not deviate . They were rather stingy and would not add an extra beer, unlike the crew on the earlier RwandAir 737 flight. They also serve Rwandan coffee or tea. The meal serving trays are rather small, and you find yourself placing wrappers and utensils in your lap as you peel and eat.

ONE MORE THING: On landing in Kigali, RwandAir ground staff knew that there were late passengers connecting on  to other flight and they gave them priority with simultaneous  immigration and check-in e.g. for Entebbe, Johannesburg and Nairobi They had even pre-printed boarding passes for some passengers, and called them up by name to rush them through to the next flights –  nice attention to detail!

rwanda-a330-3

Some facilities are different about the  plane and that may mean they may have some breakages e.g with the bathroom doors that fold in the middle to open, rather than swing out (many passengers pushed and pulled them) and the headphones have a jack you fold in half to insert and use) .

THE VERDICT: Nice RwandAir flight on the new aircraft. The crew was probably testing out the new A330 and wanted to be efficient with a minister on board.

Nairobi-Mombasa Highway Transforms

For a long time, motorists on the road trip to Mombasa had endless savannah and semi-arid brush-land as their only view, with few sizeable towns and centres along the highway. Many travelers would drive the long stretch between Nairobi-Mtito Andei or even up to Voi, before deigning to stop for refreshments and use of sanitation facilities at what were mostly only petrol station joints. Many of the Colonial era taverns and Inns along the Highway had fallen either into disrepair or closed completely. And a night in Voi meant accessing the adjacent Tsavo East National Park to stay in Voi Safari Lodge.

Not anymore. Recent events have led to a great change in the landscape along the Highway. Sure the great vast ranches of Konza are still largely intact but urban development has become a major feature of the highway with numerous new centres expanding and what were once junction centres now turning into overnight stop points or places of bustling with 24-hour economic activity. A number of factors have contributed to these developments and are manifested in some of the features observed.

Konza City: Previously tiny centres such as Kyumvi (Chumvi) or the Machakos turnoff have now become major truck stops. Investors have established vehicle sales centres nearby and the price of land is sky rocketing going by rough quotations one receives. Further along is Malili centre which sprung up once news of the plan publicized by the grand coalition government about a new Technological (ICT) city to be built at Konza, that was meant to take away pressure of land and space from Nairobi. The city was touted as a Kenya’s Silicon Valley and out of nowhere, Malili town sprung up right next to the borders of the proposed, but yet to be built, Techno-City.

Standard Gauge Railway (SGR):  This is Kenya’s single largest investment in infrastructure. As is widely known, the project replaces the old Uganda Railway (also known as the Lunatic Line) from Mombasa to Uganda. The first phase starts from Mombasa to Nairobi with advanced plans to extend it first to Naivasha and then to Kisumu and Malaba. When the SGR is done, the railway will need return cargo i.e from Western Kenya or Nairobi to Mombasa to be viable, and to get more trucks off the road.

Whatever the merits or demerits of this project is not for debate here but what must be stated are the numerous economic activities and developments that have been brought about by this project.

As the SGR is constructed, groups of the thousands of workers involved must be watered, fed, housed, clothed, transported, treated and entertained along the route. This direct and multiplier effect of the project is an indication of heavy spending. Elevated sections of the railway are a sight to behold especially for one who has not travelled the route for a long time. Major site stations chosen include Makindu, a town whose most distinct feature is the Sikh Temple. A Skygo motor cycle assembly factory is one of the new investments set up by a local born and bred entrepreneur, while new entertainment joints such as Shushan Place and Oasis have emerged. emali

At Emali, Nakumatt, Kenya’s largest Supermarket chain by sales volume, products variety and retail outlets has deigned it fit to set up shop. The petrol station eateries of Mtito Andei which marks the half way stop between Nairobi and Mombasa have changed tremendously. Weary travellers alighting from luxury coaches can now relax in massage chairs. Voi town has also enjoyed a boom in construction of residential and commercial real estate that as previously unimaginable. These are all visible signs that there is money along the highway.

Oil Pipeline: Kenya is replacing its over 40-year-old Mombasa to Nairobi oil pipeline. This project has also attracted huge groups of workers contributing to the activity along the highways in camps and sections nearby.

Concrete Poles Not to be forgotten as a major activity is the replacement of old wooden electricity poles by the Kenya Power & Lighting Company with heavier concrete ones.Poles

Devolution: It is indeed true that devolution has brought major developments and investments in the towns along the highway. The County Governments have spent on setting up their structures and attempting to deliver services to their people; the heavy spending has indeed yielded change, and this has attracted new players even in the tourist sector at Tsavo. One such establishment is the Zomeni Lion Hill Lodge in Voi, 6 km outside town along the road to the Tsavo East National Park Gate which is run by the knowledgeable father and son duo of Basil and Agam. The lodge features 8 rooms and 4 tented rooms with delightful views of the vast Tsavo park. It is secured from wild animals by electric fence, and is one of the new joints that offer real variety to local and international tourists. There are two air strips ay Voi, one by KWS in the park

Lion Hill Conclusion: This article is not intended as a feel good piece but an appreciation of tremendous changes that have taken place along the highway. The writer has not spent time in many of the centres and towns to appreciate other factors such as the availability or lack of water, sanitation, waste management or security among others let alone whether much of this development is affordable, planned or sustainable.

But for long time travelers, it may be worth it skipping that flight to Mombasa and instead taking a day long drive and appreciate the changes that have taken place along the highway. Although the Mariakani Weighbridge headache is ever-present, newer routes into Mombasa or the South Coast are opening up. Both County and National Government are endeavoring to create alternatives through Kaloleni to the North Coast and Samburu to the South Coast.

Today’s children will never know what the old highway looked like before, e.g why Man-Eaters was named so, or appreciate that the drive down to the Coast used to be about five hours only (it now takes about 10 hours to drive between Nairobi and Mombasa)  or why is the lane going towards Mombasa is smoother than the uneven lane climbing towards Nairobi. But who else to tell the story than their parents when caught for speeding between Mtito-Andei and Voi by the NTSA?