The Transportation Security Administration has for the first time blocked a U.S. airline from launching an international route because of security concerns.
The TSA last week put Delta's plans for new service to Kenya in an indefinite holding pattern because of what it called "threats to civil aviation in East Africa."
It also blocked a new Delta service to Monrovia, Liberia.
The last-minute cancellations forced Delta to reroute passengers through European hubs.
The TSA's actions created ill feelings and something of a diplomatic challenge in Kenya, whose government summoned U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger to explain the last-minute cancellation. Reuters reported that Moses Wetangula, Kenya's foreign affairs minister, had called the TSA decision "unjustified," adding, "It amounts to a travel advisory against the country."
Kenya had to cancel a scheduled ceremony at Jomo Kenyatta Airport that was supposed to mark the first direct flight to the country from the U.S. in two decades. Kenya sees the new Delta service as a chance to cash in on Americans' desire to visit the birthplace of President Barack Obama's father as well as an opportunity to open more U.S. business markets for exports.
"The reasons for the postponement by Delta are still not very clear," the Kenyan government said in a statement. "The government of Kenya has complied with all the additional security measures requested by Delta, and Nairobi airports' security is excellent."
Other media reported that Ranneberger's office had said it was working the Kenyan government and Delta to start service from Atlanta to Nairobi as soon as possible.
Delta said it learned only days before the flights were to depart that the TSA would not permit service to Nairobi and Monrovia.
The TSA, however, said it "had an active dialogue with Delta throughout the process" and "has extensively collaborated with Delta and other U.S. carriers on the security of international flights bound for the United States."
Delta planned to inaugurate a new route last week from Atlanta to Nairobi, Kenya, via Dakar, Senegal, to be followed this week by new service from New York to Abuja, Nigeria, and Monrovia.
After conducting assessments of threats and vulnerabilities at the selected airports, the TSA cleared Delta to fly into Abuja.
"Yet, due to noted security vulnerabilities in and around Nairobi, and the failure to meet international security standards and appropriate recommended practices established by the International Civil Aviation Organization at the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, TSA is currently denying air service by Delta to Nairobi and Monrovia until security standards are met or security threat assessments change," the TSA said in a statement.
Delta 'regrets any inconvenience'
Delta said it "regrets any inconvenience to our customers caused by the postponement. ... The airline is proactively contacting customers to reaccommodate them on long-established connecting flights offered by our joint venture partners Air France-KLM and other SkyTeam member airlines, which carry Americans to these destinations in Africa through their European hubs."
The airline also said that "Delta appreciates [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary Janet Napolitano's continued focus on finalizing approvals for Delta's direct service to Africa as quickly as possible."
Raising security issues at foreign airports is nothing new for the U.S. government, but citing those kinds of concerns "in and around" a certain location is outside the norm.
"We look at all security factors," said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis, who declined to provide additional details about the agency's security concerns.
Stephen McHale, a former deputy administrator of the TSA and now a partner with Patton Boggs LLP, a Washington law firm, called the action "unusual but not unprecedented. ... TSA generally assesses airport security against ICAO standards but will also look at whether there is a threat against U.S. carriers beyond the airport."
For example, McHale cited this item from the State Department website: "The U.S. government continues to receive indications of potential terrorist threats aimed at American, Western and Kenyan interests in Kenya. Terrorist acts could include suicide operations, bombings, kidnappings, attacks on civil aviation and attacks on maritime vessels in or near Kenyan ports."
McHale said, "I expect this is the source, along with some underlying intelligence analysis."
McHale also recalled that a U.S. carrier several years ago inquired about, but did not apply for, flights to Kabul, Afghanistan.
"They were advised that it was unlikely that authority would be granted because of security issues at the airport and the threat then from MANPADS," McHale said. The acronym stands for "man-portable air-defense system," shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles of which Raytheon's Stinger is the most widely known.
McHale said the TSA also warned U.S. carriers about flying to certain destinations during times of serious unrest, but the airlines usually make their own decisions not to fly.
"I'm sure Delta conducted its own security assessment and presumably decided it was safe to fly, so this makes this even more unusual," McHale said. "Offhand, I cannot think of another instance where TSA or [the DHS] has refused to allow an airline to fly to a destination where there isn't an active insurgency or similar widespread unrest."
The TSA said, "At this time, the current threat is too significant to permit these flights."
TSA said the agency continues to dedicate resources for "assessments and capacity building" at sites proposed for new Delta service, and currently has a team of security experts assisting at Roberts Airport.