Kenya Airways’ new direct flight from New York City to Nairobi has made getting to Kenya more affordable and more comfortable.
In October 2018, Kenya Airways launched a brand new route—the only direct flight from New York’s JFK to Nairobi’s NBO. The flight aboard the 787 Dreamliner is now the most comfortable direct flight to East Africa (even if you’re flying coach!). On a recent trip, I got the chance to fly round trip from New York City to Kenya on the new route, trying out Business Class on the way there and Coach on the way home.
Security and Check-in
Flying from JFK to Nairobi is very straightforward. However, due to a couple of high-profile terrorist attacks in Nairobi in the past few decades, security at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) is extreme. Plan to arrive at the airport with plenty of time for additional screenings. To not be rushed, you should plan to arrive three hours ahead of your flight. As you drive up to the airport, there’s a security checkpoint where all passengers must exit the vehicle and go through a metal detector in a separate building while the vehicle is searched. There’s a security guard at every entrance to the airport terminal, so make sure to have your boarding pass printed and your passport handy as soon as you arrive. Check-in, customs, and security once you’re inside are a breeze, but there’s an additional checkpoint at the gate where you’ll have to relinquish any liquids you might have purchased at the airport. Don’t waste your money on any water bottles or beverages, because they’ll be confiscated, even if sealed.
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If you’re landing in Nairobi and heading out on safari, you’ll transfer to Wilson Airport, a smaller regional airport that serves airlines like Air Kenya that bring you to the dusty airstrips of safari lodges in the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti in about an hour.
There are multiple Kenya Airways lounges in NBO’s international terminal. However, since they’re a bit small, it can still be hard to find a seat. The lounge is on par with any other SkyTeam lounge, with quiet, comfortable areas for lounging, a fully-stocked kitchen with self-serve drinks (including beer and wine) and snacks, and a huge wall of windows for watching all the action on the tarmac. What sets this lounge apart from any old airport lounge, though, are the bathrooms with big, beautiful showers in large private rooms. After a dusty and sweaty day in Nairobi, a shower is all you need to set you in the right mood for the long trip home.
The Cabin and Seats
The new JFK to NBO route on Kenya Airways is aboard a 787 Dreamliner. Even for a non-aviation geek, the difference between a regular plane and a 787 Dreamliner is noticeable: the windows are much larger and instead of shades, there’s a button that darkens the windows. The planes are pressurized in a way that makes you feel like you’re flying at a much lower altitude, cutting down on jetlag, dehydration, and the general feeling of doom you get on a long flight.
There’s no First Class on Kenya Airways, but the Business Class is comparable to other First Class cabins on Skyteam, like Delta One. The cabin is arranged in a 2-2-2 formation. Each set of seats has a wide shared middle armrest where tray tables, controls for the entertainment center, and a convenient cup holder are located. There’s also an optional privacy screen, but it’s always a bit awkward to be the person who initiates using the screen—especially when you’re still sharing an armrest that doubles as a drink table and your seatmate wants to talk to you about the type of things people talk about in business class: second homes (I barely have a first home), venture capitalism (just smile and nod), other first-class cabins they’ve flown in (I only fly coach), and fancy hotels around the world (finally: common ground!).
What sets Kenya Airways apart from other airlines (according to my tall seat partner who had flown first class many more times than I had) is the legroom. While the chair is upright, there’s a footrest that’s as wide as the seat and plenty of storage compartments under the footrest. While the foot area narrows on some first-class cabins, this one does not, meaning that you essentially have a narrow twin bed to toss and turn in instead of a coffin. The footrest is also completely open—not under the seat in front of you, like on some planes.
There’s no economy comfort class on Kenya Airways, but regular economy is more comfortable and spacious than economy on most planes. It would probably be more correct to say that there’s no basic economy on Kenya Airways, since the product is much more comparable to an economy plus or economy comfort class, with more legroom, wider seats, and a wider pitch.
Service and Amenities
From check in to boarding to seating, you are always greeted with a smile at Kenya Airways. Upon sitting down, we had the choice of a glass of champagne or a fruity smoothie-type thing. I asked the name of the drink three times, but I still couldn’t understand what it was, even after my seatmate tried to explain it to me. It was purple and fresh and tasted like it was full of antioxidants. I would have ordered three more if I knew how.
The staff on Kenya Airways have got to be the happiest long-haul flight attendants in the world. Service was inconsistent, but always friendly and the flight attendants seemed unfazed by any request. On the way home, when I asked for a giant bottle of water after all seven of mine got taken away at security in Nairobi, the flight attendant handed me one, even though I was flying coach.
When it’s time to go to sleep in business class, there’s no mattress or special sheet to cover the seat, but there is a huge and fluffy fleece blanket and best of all, a pair of socks with fun lion paw grips on the bottom. If you don’t have your own toiletry kit, the amenity kit, though nothing fancy, has all the essentials: lotion, toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, eye mask, and ear plugs.
Business class is outfitted with large entertainment screens in the seatbacks. In-flight entertainment has really stepped it up in recent years and Kenya Airways is no exception, with recently-released blockbusters, classic films from the 1960s to the 2000s, and a wide selection of African films to get you excited about the destination. One glaring omission from the line-up? Meryl Streep’s Out of Africa.
Food and Booze
To me, the highest praise you can honestly give an airline meal is “not bad.” The food on Kenya Airways is definitely not bad. Everything I was given was extremely edible, starting from the tomato bisque (quite a risky airline meal given the brief bout of turbulence we experienced at the beginning of the meal service) to the fluffy pancakes at breakfast the next morning. I was hoping for some traditional Kenyan cuisine, but the menu leaned more towards a vague European theme, with beef short ribs, stuffed chicken breast, and mushroom tortellini.
While I was sleeping in the middle of the night, there was an option for a midnight snack: a pesto pizza tart, a chicken pot pie, an apple turnover, or dulce de leche ice cream. (I know a freezer isn’t exactly cutting-edge technology on planes, but for some reason, I am always delighted by ice cream on a plane. It just feels so whimsical, indulgent, and improbable.)
To drink, there’s a selection of top-shelf liquor along with a few notable French and South African wines. The highlight of my drinking and dining experience was actually the most simple item—a can of Tusker lager, Kenya’s most popular beer and something I’ve never tried before. It was perfect.
The seats are wide and comfortable (even in coach!), the food is edible, the staff is friendly, and the flight cuts your travel time to East Africa down by about 6 hours by bypassing a layover in Europe or Dubai. It’s the fastest and most convenient way to get to Kenya (and that epic bucket-list safari you’ve always been dreaming of!) from the U.S. and it’s really quite affordable (coach fares for the 13ish-hour flight come in at about $750)—all without skimping on luxury. What’s not to love about this flight?