Delta abruptly cancels first Atlanta-Nairobi flight

Homeland Security says it needs more time to OK direct flights to Kenyan capital

Kenya 2009

By Monica Richardson

June 30, 2009

Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Delta Air Lines was forced to abruptly cancel Tuesday afternoon's inaugural flight between Atlanta and Nairobi, Kenya, after federal security officials denied approval.

Delta said the U.S. Homeland Security Department notified it late Monday that it would require more time to approve the direct flights to Nairobi. The flights are postponed indefinitely.

Delta said it is rerouting passengers booked on the route onto other flights with connections in Amsterdam, London or elsewhere.

Delta had initially planned to fly a group of 26 seventh-grade singers from the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta to Nairobi on the inaugural flight. A representative at the academy said Tuesday the group had already canceled the trip, notifying Delta last week that it had a scheduling conflict.

It's the first time the Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration has denied international service by a U.S. carrier, according to TSA. Delta would have been the first U.S. airline to serve Nairobi in about 20 years.

TSA said it conducted security assessments at Nairobi's airport to determine threats and vulnerabilities and "has had an active dialogue with Delta throughout the process."

Delta had originally planned to launch the route to Nairobi from New York in 2008, but changed those plans. The issues illustrate the bets Delta makes as it searches for new places to fly.

Since last November, the U.S. State Department has had in place a travel warning for U.S. citizens on the risks of travel to Kenya.

TSA said it and others in the federal government "assess a credible threat to civil aviation in East Africa. At this time, the current threat is too significant to permit these flights."

Kenya's government issued a statement Tuesday saying security at Nairobi's airport is "excellent," adding that "the reasons for the postponement by Delta are still not very clear."

Michael E. Ranneberger, U.S. ambassador to Kenya, said in a written statement, "We continue to work with the government of Kenya and Delta to enable service from Atlanta to Nairobi to begin as soon as possible."

U.S. Rep. David Scott's chief of staff said in an e-mail that Delta was worried last week that the TSA would not be ready, while U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Coweta County) said Homeland Security "needs to do a better job communicating with Delta."

"Delta has had these new routes in the work for a long time and Homeland Security waited until the eleventh hour to tell Delta that the routes couldn't start as planned," Westmoreland said.

Romeo Rwambaisire, chairman of the East Africa America Business Council in Atlanta, said he is worried the cancellation "may impact the way people perceive of East Africa or Africa as a whole."

TSA also denied approval for Delta's planned new route from New York to Monrovia, Liberia, scheduled to launch next Monday, saying the airport doesn't meet international security standards. Delta is also rescheduling those passengers.

"” Staff writers Monica Richardson, who is in Kenya with the International Reporting Project, and Bob Keefe contributed to this article.