Price War Looms on Flights to East Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya_Virgin Atlantic is starting flights to East Africa from Britain, the company's chairman said Monday, threatening a price war with British Airways.

Sir Richard Branson said the service would start between Britain and Kenya on June 1 and he hoped to fly 100,000 passengers during the first year. He promised cheaper fares and better service, including an on-board bar and massages.

Branson said the new flights should bring around US$100 million (€75 million) in extra revenues for Kenya's tourist industry.

The Kenyan capital, Nairobi is Virgin Atlantic's fourth destination in Africa. It already flies to Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa and Lagos, Nigeria.

The airline, Britain's second largest, will operate direct daily flights on a 240-seat Airbus 340-300 and fares are expected to be around US$750 (€560) for an economy ticket including taxes, US$200 (€150) less than current ticket prices on British Airways and others.

"This will give a huge boost to the Kenyan tourism industry," said Tourism Minister Morris Dzoro.

Some 500,000 people fly to Kenya each year, with tourism the largest foreign exchange earner in the country, bringing in US$800 million (€600 million) a year, according to the Kenya Tourist Board.

Other airlines operating the Nairobi-London route are national carrier, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, KLM, Swiss International Air Lines, SN Airlines, South African Airways, and Qatar through their home bases.

Branson, on a two-day visit to Kenya where he is also expected to meet President Mwai Kibaki, is also looking at other business ventures in the region, although he did not specify what they may be.

He also took time out for philanthropy, signing up to sponsor a six-month-old orphaned elephant named Lesanju being cared for at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a home in Nairobi for orphaned elephants. Lesanju was found six weeks ago and falling down a well and was rescued and helicoptered to the trust.