The Kenyan government has complained to the United States about the decision to indefinitely suspend approval of flights by Delta Airlines between Atlanta and Nairobi. Kenya's foreign minister said the move is unacceptable.
The first direct flight since the late 1980s between the United States and Kenya was scheduled to arrive after midday Wednesday at Nairobi's international airport.
Nearly all the seats were sold for the Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta, with a planned layover in Dakar, Senegal. Kenyan officials, including the prime minister, were planning to attend a welcoming ceremony and Kenya's transport minister had flown to the United States to get a seat on the flight.
But late Tuesday, U.S. homeland security officials refused to give approval to the flight, citing "security vulnerabilities" in Nairobi, and Delta announced the indefinite suspension of the flight.
Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetang'ula summoned the American ambassador to express Kenya's disapproval.
"The American government sent a security detail to look at our airport, raised a few concerns, they were corrected and they expressed satisfaction and a date for the maiden flight was set for today. The cancellation of the flight was not done in a manner expected of friends, because they simply posted something on the website and it was picked up by many readers before we, as a country and a government, were notified. Secondly this is not a very friendly act," Wetang'ula said.
Minister Wetang'ula said the U.S. decision would deter tourists from visiting Kenya and it amounted to a travel advisory. Kenya has long resented the U.S. State Department's decisions to maintain travel advisories about the safety of visiting Kenya. The government has also pointed out that carriers from European countries, including British Airways, regularly fly to Nairobi.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger played down the severity of the announcement.
"I have emphasized that this is a postponement. We are hoping to get this back on track soon. We cannot give you a precise date. This was a last-minute decision. It does reflect some concerns in Washington. The Kenyan government gave full cooperation in improving security standards at the airport and in working with our teams to do everything that was necessary," he said.
The proposed route, which has been planned since 2007, would have four flights a week between Nairobi and Atlanta.
But the Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration issued a statement Tuesday saying "at this time, the current threat is too significant to permit these flights."
The ambassador said the delay was caused by a technical security issue, and said it was not related to terrorism threats from neighboring Somalia, where Islamist insurgents are attempting to topple the fragile government.
An al-Qaida attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi killed more than 200 people in 1998, and a suicide attack also killed 15 people at an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002.
The U.S. government has also delayed a proposed Delta flight to Monrovia, Liberia, but has approved a route to Lagos, Nigeria.
The last U.S. airline to run direct flights to Kenya was Pan-Am in the late 1980s.