Troubled Kenya Airways is facing an operational crisis as pilots down tools protesting poor working conditions. This is amid plans by the airline to raise frequency of flights and return to old routes over the festive season to take advantage of rising traveller numbers.
The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) said effective 6am November 5, there would be no Kenya Airways aircraft flown by its members departing from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The association is protesting a decision to suspend contributions to the provident fund, which they claim is a contractual agreement between the airline and all employees. The pilots said KQ has unilaterally stopped both the employees’ and the employers’ contribution since 2020 and has failed to resume the retirement benefits scheme.
The strike now stands in the way of KQ’s plan to recover by 2023 its pre-Covid numbers of over five million passengers, recorded in 2019, through more flights and new routes.
This week, Kenya Airways increased the number of flights for the London route throughout winter, seeking to recoup numbers lost during the Covid-19 restrictions. It now flies to London 11 times a week up from five times.
“The increased flight frequencies will cater to this route’s increased demand and provide KQ customers with increased flight options in the upcoming winter season,” the airline said.
KQ also introduced direct Mombasa-Dubai flights during the festive season, targeting to reap from the traditional high demand.
“KQ will operate daily flights with two on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (morning and evening). Flights are open for booking via KQ's website, travel agents and online travel agents.”
Left with no option
But Kalpa, which represents about 400 pilots, said the Kenya Airways management had left them with no option but to withdraw labour over unresolved grievances.
“We hoped that the management of the airline would soften its hard stance and engage in a negotiation on the issues raised. However … Kenya Airways management has not made any meaningful attempt to engage,” Kalpa’s General Secretary and Chief Executive Captain Murithi Nyaga said in a statement on Friday.
Kalpa had issued a 14-day strike notice on October 19.
Now the carrier’s management will need to first handle the strike by its pilots.
KQ management issued a statement on Friday night saying the strike will cost the airline $2.47 million a day, terming the move by the pilots as unfortunate.
KQ Chairman Michael Joseph said the airline has been working with the Ministry of Labour and the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) to resolve grievances raised by Kalpa.
“The board has unanimously come to the opinion that none of the grievances advanced by Kalpa merits an industrial strike and firmly holds that all CBAs (collective bargaining agreements) must align with the need to restructure the airline's operations towards profitability and efficiency,” said Joseph, suggesting KQ’s financial situation comes first when it negotiates with pilots or staff.
‘Action is unnecessary’
“We wish to reiterate that industrial action is unnecessary at this point as it will delay and disrupt the financial and operational recovery and cause reputational damage to Kenya Airways.
“The board underlines its full support and confidence in [CEO] Mr [Allan] Kilavuka and the management in handling the matters at hand and the company.”
On Wednesday, a Kenyan Labour Court had suspended the strike notice issued earlier, even though pilots insisted they would down tools if their grievances were unmet.
The national carrier has been struggling with losses over the years.
Recently it defaulted on its aircraft purchase loans worth $841.6 million from the American Exim Bank.
The Kenyan government had guaranteed $525 million and has since offered to pay the amount. KQ disputed the figure this week, even though the National Treasury had listed it in its report.
The airline has been focused on restructuring its fleet, including selling aircrafts and sub-leasing to other airlines in an attempt to return to profitability.
Data from the airline shows that the national carrier’s fleet size reduced in the last nine months to 41 aircrafts from 43 in December 31, 2021.
Hoteliers have lauded the decision to begin flying from the Moi International Airport to Dubai during the tourism high peak period , saying it will boost the sector.
The hoteliers have been calling for an open-skies policy to allow international airlines to land at the Coast region's largest airport.
“The announcement of KQ’s direct flights from Mombasa to Dubai from 1 December 2022 is a welcome change and brings us a step closer to the open skies policy that all tourism stakeholders are strongly advocating for,” said Kenya Tourism Board director Bobby Kamani.
"The tourism fraternity looks forward to the resumption of flights to Mombasa by Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa and the introduction of FlyDubai, to continue the momentum," Kamani added saying their would be value from the open-skies policy.
“It is not just for tourism by way of lower air fares but for the economy as a whole with lower freight costs and an increased interest by international investors to invest in Kenya as they see the country being more accessible than ever before."
Mohammed Hersi, the chairman of the Diani Hospitality Owners Association, lauded Kenya Airways for resuming the Mombasa-Dubai direct flights.
“The Dubai-Mombasa four times a week flight is progressive,” Hersi said.
“We can't wait for the following – London-Mombasa even three times a week is good enough, Amsterdam-Mombasa, Milan-Mombasa to serve Malindi and Watamu and Paris-Mombasa flights."
Players want the airline to also begin direct flights between Mombasa and Mumbai in India and Mombasa and Johannesburg.
KQ is yet to launch to the Italian cities of Milan and Rome, previously planned for June this year, due to reduced passenger demand as a result of slower than expected recovery from the pandemic.
Some airlines that have asked for licences to fly directly to Mombasa include KLM, Qatar, Turkish, Fly Dubai and Emirates. Ethiopian and Uganda Airlines already fly into Mombasa directly
"If these airlines fly to Mombasa, we will have traffic to fill our beds and further create employment,” said Kenya Coast Tourism Association chairman Victor Shitakha.
In 2021, KLM announced direct flights from Amsterdam to Mombasa. But the plans were 'halted' after the airline failed to get rights to fly directly to the destination.
Reporting by Anthony Kitimo, Winnie Atieno and James Anyanzwa