Thursday, June 11, 2009

TSA blocks Delta Monrovia flights

Delta Air Lines' efforts to expand its US-to-Africa flights, filling a void in air travel left by Pan American World Airways' demise almost two decades ago, hit a snag this week after US officials blocked the carrier's planned flights to Kenya and Liberia.

The US Transportation Safety Administration, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, said it blocked the Kenya route "due to noted security vulnerabilities in and around Nairobi".

The State Department issued a warning over travel to Kenya in November, citing increased continued indications of terrorist threats aimed at "American, western and Kenyan interests" in the country.

The setback came a day before passengers were set to board Delta's first flight from Atlanta to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, via Dakar, and underscored the challenges air travel and tourism officials on both continents face in seeking to capitalize on the growth of developing economies throughout Africa.

The TSA postponed Delta's New York-to-Monrovia route, slated to start next week, until the Liberia airport meets international security standards.

"At this time, the current threat is too significant to permit these flights," the TSA said, noting it would revisit them once "security threat assessments change".

The agency did not block Delta from launching a nonstop flight this week to Johannesburg, or from beginning a service to Abuja, Nigeria on June 10.

Delta, the world's biggest carrier, has looked to Africa as a source of growth in an industry marked in the past year by weak air travel demand and steep service cuts on many domestic and international flights. But flights on Delta's six African routes have remained crowded, with more than 80 per cent of available seats filled, and fares have held up better than most international destinations.

"It has far exceeded our expectations in potential profits for us," said Glen Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice-president for network planning & revenue management.

The US government's decision left some Kenyan officials, who expect the new service will help Nairobi in its push to become an economic hub to subSaharan Africa, stunned and disappointed.

"All the requests of security measures were put forth, and we fulfilled every step of the requirements," said Najib Balala, the country's minister of tourism.

Mr Balala dismissed links between the abrupt TSA order and the November travel warning, which he called "procedural and standard", noting Americans remain Kenya's second-biggest tourism market.

Neither Kenya officials nor Delta executives were sure when the US would lift the ban.

Delta offers passengers six African destinations in five countries: nonstop flights to Accra, Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos and Dakar; and an indirect flights to Cape Town, via Dakar. The airline also aims to begin services to Luanda, Angola, and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in September.