The African Airlines That Should Be on Your Radar

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 flight 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 inter-continentally. 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 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.

ETHIOPIAN

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.

ROYAL AIR MAROC

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.

KENYA AIRWAYS

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.

EGYPTAIR

Founded in 1932, EgyptAir struggled in recent decades, mostly thanks to the political instability in the region and the Arab Spring. It survived, though, and is now taking delivery of new, Boeing Dreamliner planes to operate on its long haul routes; the first country to be serviced with this sparkly new craft is America. Egyptair is a great option, too, if you’re tired of badly behaved, boozed-up seatmates—it doesn’t serve alcohol on any of its flights.

RWANDAIR

The government-owned carrier of this small African nation has ambitious plans to expand to North America. It already flies daily from Kigali to London-Gatwick, using sparkling new Airbus A330Neos which feature business, economy, and premium economy cabins—the first African carrier to offer the latter.

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