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Kenya Airways prepares for new Boeing Dreamliners, new terminal and, soon, direct US flights

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NAIROBI, Kenya - New Boeing Dreamliners, the opening of a new terminal, and — on the horizon — Kenya's first direct flights to the United States. The chief executive of Kenya Airways is predicting an exciting couple of years for African air travel.

Only last August the arrivals terminal at Kenya's main international airport was a huge ball of fire and smoke. Putting that disaster in the past, Titus Naikuni is looking forward to an April delivery of the first of the company's six Boeing 787 Dreamliners being shipped this year.

And, mirroring a rise in local airlines seen across the continent, a Kenya Airways-owned low-cost carrier — Jambo Jet — is set to begin flights early this year. Naikuni predicts an explosion in air travel across the continent in the next decade as Africa continues to modernize.

"The thing is, when you start valuing time, you start seeing the logic behind the low-cost carrier," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The day everybody in Africa starts valuing time, because I don't think we value time, I think we'll see the phenomenal growth of local carriers."

International air traffic to and from Africa has been growing about 6 per cent a year over the last decade, while domestic traffic has expanded an average of 12 per cent a year, the African Airlines Association said in its 2013 annual report.

Air traffic has been growing most strongly around Johannesburg in South Africa, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and Nairobi. While the growth is impressive, the report noted that Africa provides only a small sliver of global profits for airlines.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport last made international news in August, when the arrivals terminal caught fire and smouldered for hours as black billows of smoke rose above. Earlier this month a small improvised explosive device detonated just outside the airport, in a restaurant trash can. Naikuni acknowledged that such events raise concerns for his customers. Somali Islamic militants have vowed to carry out attacks in Kenya.

"To me, yes we are vulnerable but I think the security forces are doing an impressive job now compared to what it was before," he said.

Naikuni told a public forum on Saturday that the fire has been turned into an opportunity. A new arrivals terminal is being built that will upgrade the airport's security — by separating arriving and departing passengers — and allow direct flights to the United States, perhaps beginning in 2016.

Naikuni said the airline's new plane acquisitions will increase the airline's capacity by almost 50 per cent, a "big, big increase."

Africa appears set for an air travel boom based on its large, young population and its rising middle class. A November report from McKinsey Global Institute called "Lions Go Digital: The Internet's Transformative Power in Africa," said the continent has 16 per cent Internet penetration and 167 million total users. In a decade, penetration is predicted to be at 50 per cent with 600 million users.

Naikuni believes that will all translate into more airline passengers.

The continent's youthful population "is very curious, curious to travel, to find out what's beyond the borders," he said.

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