Shipping & Logistics

Kenya must do more to reap the fruits of direct US flights

The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) international arrivals terminal. PHOTO | FILE
The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) international arrivals terminal. PHOTO | FILE 

Another week, another feel-good logistics story. Kenya’s premier airport is now a world-class facility. The attainment of Category One Status by Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) last week allows airlines to start acquiring non-stop flying licences between Kenya and US.

Imagine boarding an aircraft the size of an Airbus A380 at New York’s JFK International Airport, falling asleep in the skies just above western fringes of the Atlantic Ocean, and the first time the crew asks you to prepare for landing, the dim lights of Nairobi are visible beneath.

Flying back to US becomes equally faster. There is no need to circle over the EU airspace, make expensive stopovers and endure mid-journey screening at Turkey’s Istanbul Atatürk Airport, France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport or London’s Heathrow Airport.

A number of reasons justify the celebratory mood that has greeted news that airlines will be flying directly from global commercial centres to the JKIA. Firstly, time is of essence in business. They say billions of shillings can be made or lost in a matter of seconds. Secondly, there is a sentimental value that a country, which markets itself as a regional hub derives. With direct aviation link to Europe and Asia’s big economies, direct flight to US has somewhat been a missing limb.

Or maybe, it is human just to give the Transport ministry a pat on the back after a series of missteps that climaxed eight years ago with the last minute cancellation of a maiden flight from Atlanta to Nairobi by Delta Airline.

In the sense of good logistics, however, the ultimate goal should be speed that builds wealth. A farmer can, for instance, only make sense of direct flight if it translates to improved farm gate earnings. Similarly, a factory worker can only notice the difference when improved trade leads to increased take-home pay.

Let’s examine what we have for outbound traffic, the segment of direct flight that can easily be controlled by national interests like the Kenya Airways. Exporters of perishable items have been struggling over the years to create a market in the US. Neither horticultural nor fish orders from the US bleep on the country’s export radar at the moment.

The flower industry, seen as another beneficiary also has low direct sales volumes to contend with. And nothing looks set to compel flower retailers in US to shake off established business relations with Dutch flower auctions.

After all, auctions are known to supply the blooms within short notice and in right quantities and variety demanded. Don’t forget that flowers from Kenya are often branded European the moment they land in markets like Amsterdam.

Perhaps the biggest export window has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). So far, just about 20 out of the 6,500 product lines permitted to enter the US duty and quota free have been developed. Textile and apparel, which account for over 80 per cent of Agoa sales netted Sh34 billion in 2015.

Well, to some extent, fabrics are perishable. Clothing ordered for winter can only be accepted if it is manufactured and delivered within that season. But you may not need a direct flight just to ensure prompt delivery. Remember too that Agoa is just a temporary preferential export arrangement!

And what of inbound traffic? The volume looks rich with data indicating an average of 275 Americans visited Kenya everyday as tourists between January and October.

But assuming that all Americans heed President Donald Trump’s Buy America Build America call, such a volume will be up for grabs by just one American Airline, loyalty to the national brand having eclipsed price and quality of service, the usual differentiating factors.

So direct flight to the world’s largest economy is good news but Kenya must go back to the drawing board in order to reap its fruits.