Kenya Airways Converts a Dreamliner for Cargo to Stave Off Competition

Courtesy Kenya Airways

Published Feb 11, 2021 3:28 PM by Njiraini Muchira

Kenya Airways has repurposed one of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners into a cargo plane as part of new measures to protect its Nairobi hub from increasing competition.

The airline, which is sinking under the weight of loss-making and is in the process of being nationalized, has transformed a passenger Dreamliner into a 'preighter.' It hopes to use this freighter conversion to safeguard its cargo business, which is under threat - mainly from Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's largest network cargo operator.

The repurposing has resulted in the removal of seats from the widebody aircraft, giving it a maximum payload of 46 tonnes. The conversion, which was undertaken with the help of Avianor following approvals by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, is first ever cargo repurpose performed on a Boeing 787.

“This demonstrates our agility, innovation and quick thinking as well as increases our cargo capability and capacity to keep essential goods moving across the globe,” said Allan Kilavuka, Kenya Airways MD.

With the conversion, Kenya Airways hopes to profit from cargo transportation, particularly horticultural products to destinations like Europe, Asia and the Far East. The aircraft, one of two that the airline intends to repurpose, will also be deployed to transport pharmaceutical products across the continent, including Covid-19 vaccines. Kenya Airways has already invested in an ultra-modern pharmaceutical facility located at its Jomo Kenyatta International Airport ((JKIA) hub.

Moves by the airline to protect its base comes while Ethiopia Airlines has achieved new milestones in its quest to dominate the aviation industry in Africa, including the air cargo business. In late January, Africa’s biggest carrier secured authorization to operate chartered flights out of JKIA during the Valentine season in February, bringing direct competition to Kenya Airways, which has historically benefited from transporting cut flowers to Europe. 

The approval gives the Ethiopian carrier permission to operate direct flights from Nairobi to destinations in Europe and Asia without stopovers at its Addis Ababa hub, as is the case with scheduled flights. Kenya is the world’s fourth-largest producer of cut flowers, with about 70 percent destined for Europe; the trade earned the country $960 million in 2019.

As Kenya Airways struggles to remain in the skies, with survival pegged on success of nationalization and state funding, Ethiopian Airlines has made clear its intentions to control the cargo air business on the continent. The airline has invested heavily in expanding its cargo services, including building the largest trans-shipment terminal in Africa, deploying nine dedicated freighters and flying to 44 international destinations. It plans to expand to a fleet of 19 aircraft flying to 57 destinations, hauling 820,000 tonnes of cargo and raking in $2 billion in revenues annually.