At long last, a West African airline is once more flying between the Mother Continent and North America. This is good news and could be great — if they can make it work and make it grow.
For decades, West Africa has needed an airline that could serve not only its own region and Europe, but offer a link to North America.
After many false starts, it may finally have one.
Air Senegal, the national flag carrier for the French-speaking country of Senegal, has begun flying from Baltimore (BWI) to its capital city, Dakar (DSS), with a stop in New York City (JFK). The service was launched Sept. 2.
The flight out of JFK to Dakar takes 8 hours. That’s not a typo — EIGHT hours. From Baltimore, it’s four hours longer, but two hours of that is taken up by the stop in NYC.
The airline had planned to run this route out of Washington-Dulles (IAD), but decided at the last moment to use Baltimore as its primary US destination airport.
For travelers from French-speaking African countries wanting a direct route to the United States — and for African-Americans looking to travel to West Africa on an African airline — this is big news.
It’s also good news for Dakar as it seeks to revive its international tourism. The city has long been known for its vibrant cultural and music scene, so much so that was once referred to as “the Paris of Africa.”
More on that after my next visit to Dakar — which hopefully will be on this airline.
The new service will run on Thursdays and Sundays. Travelers from the United States will depart on Flight HC408 from Baltimore at 8:25pm and landing at JFK at 9:55pm. Two hours later, it will take off for Senegal, arriving in Dakar at 12:25pm the next day.
The return flight, HC407, will be a red-eye, departing DSS at 1:30am to arrive at JFK at 6, and take off again at 8:30am for the final run into BWI at 10am.
West Africa is physically closer to all the Americas than any other part of the continent. For Africans and Americans alike, it offers the shortest non-stop flights to sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 11 hours max. For that reason, it often serves as the gateway for many first-time visitors to Africa from North America.
It’s especially true for Black Americans looking to connect with their African roots.And yet for decades, it has long lagged behind the airlines of North, East and South Africa.
For years, until it financially collapsed in 2020, South African Airways’ provided the only nonstop flights between the US East Coast and Dakar and Accra, the capital city of Ghana.
Multiple attempts by Ghana and Nigeria to revive that connection have yielded little more than grandiose announcements and empty promises.
Now, Senegal is taking a crack at it.
The planes Air Senegal will use on this route will be two new Airbus wide-body long-haul A330-900s, also known as A330neos. It’s an updated version of a jet has been around since 1992. They will be configured for 290 passengers in three classes:
Economy Class (237 seats)
Premium Economy (21 seats)
Business Class (32 seats)
When you consider that the A330neo maxes out at 440 passengers, that suggests a a roomier cabin in all three seat classes. Airbus also says its new A330s boast new creature comforts for passengers, including advanced in-flight entertainment, wi-fi, and email.
Airbus also says the overhead bins have room for 66 percent more bags than before. (Given the chaos that ensues as passengers try to cram seemingly everything they own into those overhead bins, only time will tell if this is a good or a bad thing.)
Wholly owned by the government, Air Senegal launched in 2018. It’s two predecessors, Air Senegal International and Senegal Airlines, both collapsed financially under mountainous debt. Neither ever touched down at a North American airport.
The new airline also gets a new home base — Blaise Diagne International Airport (DSS), which replaced, replacing the older and overcrowded Leopold Senghor International Airport (DKR) in 2017.
The new route puts Air Senegal in direct competition with Delta Airlines for the Senegal market. It’s part of a 20-year government plan to eventually become West Africa’s leading international airline. For now, though, only West Africa’s Francophone countries are being served by the new airline.
Whether Senegal’s English-speaking neighbors like Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia to be included in its route map remains to be seen. But it’s a start. And when it comes to air travel in West Africa, any new airline that actually gets off the ground is reason to cheer.
So bienvenue, Air Senegal. Bonne chance et bon voyage.