By Mark Ellwood
Exactly a year ago, if a New Yorker wanted to get to Nairobi, they were looking at around 24 hours of flight time and at least one plane change under the best of circumstances.
But last October, Kenya Airways’ new direct changed all that, shaving 10 hours off that flight time and eliminating the transfer.
For those of us (and in the U.S., it’s a lot of us) who want to travel far but don’t have the luxury of time, it was a big deal. It’s one example of how these days, the rising number of African airlines with conveniently U.S.-friendly routes is becoming the smartest way for us to explore the continent—and help us bop around from safari to jungle to beach once there.
It’s worthwhile familiarizing yourself with, say Egyptair, perhaps, or Royal Air Maroc, two of the continent’s top-tier carriers who are aggressively expanding their service, both to Africa and intercontinentally. This rise in homegrown airlines more easily unlocks some destinations which were hard to reach for long-haul visitors as well as offering a ton of new direct flights from North America which make a quick trip more feasible (Casablanca is absolutely doable for a long weekend). That’s not to say some of our own carriers are not doing their part to get us to the savanna sooner—United will launch a direct Newark to Cape Town flight this December. But these African airlines are not just upping the ante in terms of comfort and access, they also help start the experience of being there before touching down. Below, a quick primer to the top six to get you into north, south, and east Africa right now.
SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS
THE ESSENTIALS The Star Alliance member has been in operation for more than 80 years—and is a pioneer of many things, including in-flight entertainment, which it trialled, then discontinued, in 1948. SAA spent much of the latter half of the 20th century under an apartheid-powered boycott. Its global profile began rising again in 1990, when that system was lifted. This rebound featured an aggressive global program including resuming services to JFK in November 1991.
FLY THIS… internationally and within the continent. There are direct flights to its Johannesburghub from JFK and Washington-Dulles; from there, SAA has extensive service throughout sub-Saharan Africa and its own, low-cost subsidiary, Mango, whose planes are painted bright yellow. Ultra-luxury Botswana safaris are accessed via its capital, Maun, a short hop on SAA from JNB; likewise, the sand dunes of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast can be accessed via its capital, Windhoek. If you’re combining a safari with a visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, SAA operates regular connections there, too.
BEST FEATURE SAA’s hub in Johannesburg has some of the most convenient connections across Sub-Saharan Africa—even better, the gleaming airport was radically overhauled to prep for the soccer world cup in 2010, so its facilities are among the best of any major city in the region.
LOCAL INSPIRATION Stellenbosch Villiere Methode natural chardonnays are poured in flight.
THE ESSENTIALS The continent’s largest and most successful airline is an anchor of the Star Alliance network, a member since 2011; its profits last year hit $223 million, a number many European and North American carriers eyeball enviously. It has earned countless accolades from airline insiders for both its planes and its services, regularly earning the title of best airline in Africa from both passenger and industry surveys. One reason: the average age of the planes in its fleet of more than 100 planes is just 6 years, compared with 15 for fellow Star Alliance member United.
FLY THIS… internationally and within the continent. Ethiopian has direct flights to the largest number of north American destinations: Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, and Washington-Dulles, with service to its hub in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. From there, it has the largest network of Sub-Saharan flights too, so if you’re looking to cram a continent-spanning trip into a single visit, opt for Ethiopian: connect to Entebbe in Uganda for gorilla-trekking, or Dar es Salaam to head to Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park for lion-spotting or scoot down to Maputo in Mozambique for some R&R on its beachfront.
BEST FEATURE Its aggressive expansion and investment in startup carriers across the continent. Ethiopian is underwriting the relaunch of defunct Zambia Airways via an investment of $30 million, and bankrolled the newly launched Chadian Airlines. It operates Malawian Airlines for that country’s government, and has plans to develop another new airline, this time in Nigeria.
LOCAL INSPIRATION Spongy injera bread—a hit across Manhattan right now—comes with meals.
ROYAL AIR MAROC
THE ESSENTIALS Morocco’s national carrier is headquartered in Casablanca, its largest city. In addition to direct flights from JFK and Washington-Dulles, the airline just added service to Miami three times weekly; from June, it will also shuttle to and from Boston. It has just begun delivery of a brand new clutch of jet lag-busting Boeing Dreamliner planes.
FLY THIS… internationally, especially if you’re an American Airlines loyalist or another One World airline: Royal Air Maroc is scheduled to join that alliance next year. As a result, keep an eye on other American hubs stateside, like Dallas-Forth Worth and Los Angeles, for additional service. Morocco’s a compact country, but internal transit can be surprisingly challenging, so RAM’s network of regular flights from its Casablanca hub to destinations like Marrakesh and Tangier is vital.
BEST FEATURE The loyalty scheme is reassuringly called Safar Flyer—the perfect, if inadvertent, pun. The 787s, though, are the real draw, with their pressurized cabins and lighting able to minimize jet lag better than any other long-haul aircraft.
LOCAL INSPIRATION The classic Casablanca, is a fixture of the movie library on international flights. Of course.
THE ESSENTIALS If you’re a SkyTeam loyalist, this is the only member in the continent—and Delta has just signed up to codeshare with Kenya Airways, streamlining connections to or from anywhere in the U.S. The carrier is also nearing the end of a ten year-long expansion program, Project Mawingu (Swahili for ‘clouds’), aimed at adding 24 new destinations to its network—the most high-profile of which was New York-JFK last fall. It also includes Guangzhou, China, and a seasonal routing to Rome, which resumes next month.