Airlines stare at fresh storm as new Corona variant emerges

Wednesday December 01 2021

Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines planes at Kamuzu International airport in Malawi. FILE PHOTO | COURTESY


Airlines, including national carrier Kenya Airways, are staring at a slowdown in business ahead of the festive season as nations impose new travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other countries due to a highly infectious new coronavirus strain.

The discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in South Africa has caused a panic move globally forcing nations to impose travel bans.

The European Union, the United States, Israel, United Arab Emirates, the UK, among other nations, have suspended flights to southern Africa while Singapore, Italy, and Israel have placed all of those nations, plus Mozambique, on their red lists.

Kenya Airways has said it will not fly passengers coming in from Southern African countries to Dubai after UAE stopped admission of persons from these countries to their territory.

The new variant is likely to hit transit passengers who use Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as a hub for connecting flights.

Qatar Airways has announced that it has suspended flights to and from South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Zambia.


Rwanda became the first East African nation to suspend direct flights between Kigali and Southern African courtiers.

The new variant is likely to hit transit passengers who use Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as a hub for connecting flights.

Kenya has enhanced screening of travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and Hong Kong with the health acting director-general Patrick Amoth saying that they would be required to present proof of vaccination before being allowed in.

Travellers are also required to present a negative Covid -19 test result obtained 96 hours before arrival into the country. British Airways on Friday said it was contacting affected customers by the ban on flights from Southern Africa while another airline, Virgin Atlantic said it would be reviewing its schedule for South Africa for the coming week, with flights from Johannesburg to Heathrow cancelled between noon on Friday and 04:00 on Sunday.

The latest Covid-19 crisis is already causing a storm in the aviation sector with players such as Kenya Airways expected to suffer disruptions at a time they had projected bigger businesses coinciding with the Christmas festivities.

The global aviation industry had started showing signs of recovery as more countries opened their borders with an increase in the rate of vaccinations, giving hopes to the sector that was hit hard by the pandemic.

International Air Travel Association (IATA) said the sector recorded an 18 percent growth in September, compared with the previous month, in what came as good news to the sector.

Major economies across the world including the US, India, China and a host of European countries had opened up their borders to tourists before the outbreak of the new variant.

Last month, the US announced that it had started allowing fully vaccinated tourists following months of restriction with India following suit this week.

Kenya Airways has so far resumed flights to India and UK with increased frequencies to London after Kenya was removed from the red list, which had barred travellers from Kenya to go to Britain.

The emergence of the new variant will now see airlines go back to the drawing board in regard to additional frequencies that they had planned to increase ahead of the holiday season.

For instance, KQ was planning to put additional frequencies on the Netherlands route and introduce daily flights to London.

Health experts say that the new virus is the "worst one we've seen so far", and there is concern it has the potential to evade immunity.

No cases of the new variant have been confirmed in Kenya so far.

As of last week Friday, only 59 cases had been identified in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong where it was first directed.

Experts have already warned the new variant could be problematic because its genetic composition makes it more transmissible

"It looks like this particular variant has a very concerning set of mutations especially on the spike protein, which is needed for its transmission properties as well as its protection against the vaccine," Pasi Penttinen, a public emergency response manager at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control told CNBC Friday.