I flew economy class on Kenya Airways twice in Africa to see if its short flights are as good as its flagship planes

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderThe plane I was flying on has been in service for close to 11 years.
  • 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.
  • While Kenya Airways hasn’t won any major awards, it’s consistently ranked as one of the best African airlines. With a number of flights in Africa over the last two weeks, I decided to fly on Kenya Airways to see how it stacked up.
  • I flew from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya on a Boeing 737-800 (KQ533) and then from Zanzibar, Tanzania to Nairobi on an Embraer-190 (KQ491).
  • For shorter flights in Africa, Kenya Airways tends not to use any of its nine flagship 787 Dreamliners and instead uses older planes in its fleet. While the planes do show their wear – some don’t have seatback entertainment – all routes have meals, complimentary alcohol, and, most importantly, Kenya Airways’ excellent and personable customer service.

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 stabilise.

I was curious whether Kenya Airways’ service has suffered from all the corporate turbulence and cost-cutting. With two flights in Africa coming up over the last month, I took a chance and booked Kenya Airways.

My flights were from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya on a Boeing 737-800 (KQ533) and then from Zanzibar, Tanzania to Nairobi on an Embraer-190 (KQ491).

A week later, I had my last flight on Kenya Airways, which you can read about here. It was from Nairobi to Dubai, U.A.E. on the airline’s new flagship, the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner (KQ310).

I found that while all Kenya Airways flights have the company’s excellent customer service, there’s a big difference in the quality of aeroplane between my two shorter inter-Africa flights and my longer flight to Dubai.

Here’s what it’s like to fly in Africa on Kenya Airways:

My journey with Kenya Airways began at Lagos’ Murtala Muhammed International Airport, considered one of the world’s worst airports. After attendants checked our passports and tickets, we were told to wait in a holding area as they searched each person’s carry-on individually. It took a while, but I was happy to see such thorough checking.

Source: The National AE

My first flight was on a Boeing 737-800. Kenya Airways currently has 12 Boeing 737-800s in its fleet. The plane I was flying on has been in service for close to 11 years.

Source: PlaneMapper,PlaneSpotters

It’s a relatively small plane with only about 145 seats. There are 16 sets in business class, which look like this. The seats are the same width as economy at 17 inches, but obviously, there’s a lot more legroom — 47 inches of pitch, to be exact.

Source: SeatGuru

The economy seats looked more or less the same. I’m not sure why, but all the seats — business and economy — were upholstered in a drab brown. Maybe it hides stains better.

I was seated directly on the wing. It gave me a nice view of the Kenyan flag pattern on the wingtip. Despite the long security check, we took off pretty close to on time.

Source: Flightera

Once in the air, flight attendants came around to offer up a cool toilette to wipe your hands and face. It’s not quite the warm towel that Japan Airlines hands out, but it’s refreshing after wading through the Lagos humidity.

The book behind the seat back gives a rundown of Kenya Airways fleet. As of right now, the airline has 12 Boeing 737-800s, 3 Boeing 777-300s, 15 Embraer ERJ-190s, and, finally, 9 Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.

While the seats were comfortable enough, there’s no getting around the fact that 737s tend to be tight. The 32 inches of legroom was enough for me, but I’m only 5’7″. It’s likely tighter for taller folks. Get the exit row.

Kenya Airways’ beverage and snack service is quick. Within 20 minutes of take-off, attendants had brought nuts and drinks through the cabin. That kind of speed is appreciated when you are in hot destinations in Africa where you are likely thirsty.

With my flight time to Nairobi around five hours and twenty minutes, I was thankful that Kenya Airways had meal service. Dinner was chicken in a savoury brown sauce with steamed veggies and potatoes.

As the flight was in the afternoon, I was still thinking lunch. I used the roll to make a hefty, saucy sandwich. The spongy bread was perfect for it.

The meal was finished with pasta salad and then a sweet pound cake.

I don’t care that much about in-flight entertainment as I tend to work on my laptop or watch Netflix on my phone. But, for those who do, the older 737s have drop-down displays, not seat-back. They were showing a pretty entertaining hidden-camera show about practical jokes.

The sunset out the window as we crossed into Kenya was spectacular. A short while later, we landed in Nairobi ten minutes early. First flight down and I was a happy customer. Good sign for the future!

A week later, it was time for my second Kenya Airways flight. This time I was flying from Zanzibar to Nairobi, a short one-hour and twenty minute journey. Abeid Amani Karume International Airport is tiny. You walk to your plane on the tarmac.

For Kenya Airways’ short flights, they tend to use the Embraer-190, the average service age of which is about six and a half years. My plane entered service five years ago.

The plane has 12 business class seats and 84 economy seats. It’s a compact plane, but the seats are still 17 inches wide. One thing I enjoyed about the Embraer planes is that the seats were a more cushioned leather, particularly in business. It’s a cleaner look.

Economy seats have slightly less pitch than the 737-800 at 31 inches (and 38 inches in business). I lucked out and was placed in an exit row. Talk about legroom!

I was surprised that even on such a short flight, Kenya Airways offers close to full food and beverage service. We got the first round of nuts and drinks and then a second round with a sizeable, fresh-tasting chicken salad sandwich. It’s not a hot meal, but I was stoked.

Another benefit of the Embraer planes is the seat-back entertainment system. I made it about halfway through “Oceans’ 8” before we landed in Nairobi, right on time.

What did I think after two flights with Kenya Airways? While shorter Kenya Airways flights are on older 737-800s and the Embraer-190, the airline gets kudos for its eager, friendly staff, free alcoholic beverages, and full meals on most flights. The airline recently announced that it will buy up to 10 new 737-Max planes in the coming years, so the old planes may soon be a non- issue.

Most American passengers will experience the airline on an international route, almost all of which are on the flagship Dreamliner. That experience, which I had a few days later on a flight from Nairobi to Dubai, was second-to-none in economy.

Read more: 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»

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