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matatu air transit

From commonplace frustrations with the big airlines to the absurdities of local carriers, contempt for the vagaries of air travel is among the most common laments among Foreign Service officers.

Cessna 206

In this respect, Kenya actually fares reasonably well. The country’s biggest airline — Kenya Airways, which bills itself as “the pride of Africa” — rates favorably when compared with other regional competitors, though this is not saying much. And we’ve even had some mildly pleasant experiences flying on some of the smaller airlines, such as Air Kenya. One company, however, stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest for its reliably erratic service: Fly 540.

S got an early taste of Fly 540’s capriciousness when she traveled to Eldoret for work a few months after we arrived in Kenya. The flight there was fine, but on the way back she arrived at the airport to find that there would be a six-hour delay. The Fly 540 staff were noticeably unpeturbed and didn’t bother to explain why the flight had been delayed, so S got a refund and marched over to a competitor’s counter to get a seat on their next flight. She got off lucky. A few months later D ran into a coworker who for three straight days roamed the halls of the Embassy in safari casual wear. He had intended to fly to the coast for a training, but each time he went to the airport Fly 540 cancelled his flight at the last minute.

After the Eldoret experience, S swore to never use Fly 540. Unfortunately, it is the only commercial airline that flies to some of the country’s more remote areas, so when an opportunity arose at work to travel to the windswept northern lands of Turkana, S had no choice but to book a flight on Fly 540. She didn’t hold her breath that the flight would depart on time, but she thought it would at least get her from point A to point B. It seemed too good to be true when S and her colleague boarded and were wheels up right on schedule. But half an hour into the flight, the plane hit some turbulence and S heard a crackling on the intercom. She barely deciphered the captain’s message that he was turning around to fix a mechanical problem. An hour after the flight took off, S was right back where she had started.

The flight crew announced that the plane would have to depart by 4pm in order to reach Turkana via Eldoret before dark, a must since the runway in Turkana has no lights. This left about half an hour to fix the glitch – an impossibly inadequate amount of time in a country known for its lackadaisical inefficiency. There was little to do but wait, however, as a replacement part had been requested and was being transported from Nairobi’s other airport. At 5pm, the airline staff made another announcement, saying that the part would be delivered momentarily and that the airline would change the route, landing in Turkana first before continuing on to Eldoret.

Attempting to pacify the restive masses, the crew offered snacks at the airport café and the passengers followed single-file out of the departure hall only to be told that the plane had been fixed and must be boarded immediately. The doors closed, the engines revved to life, and the flight attendant began the safety lecture anew. Just as she wished everyone a pleasant flight, the engines cut and the pilot announced that Turkana denied him clearance to land given the late hour. After nearly four hours and two failed attempts, S was sent home.

When she called to apologize and reschedule her meetings, a local official in Turkana remarked that he tries to avoid flying Fly 540 because they operate more like a matatu than a respectable airline. With few other options, S rebooked her ticket and the following day managed to make it to her destination. This of course is only half a victory as she has yet to return from her work travels.

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