KQ engines rev up but trouble looms

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022 02:13 | By
Kenya Airways flight. PHOTO/Courtesy
Kenya Airways flight. PHOTO/Courtesy

Just when Kenya Airways was warming up its engines, ready to fly out of its financial headwinds, it has run into problems, with its pilots set to strike after tabling a raft of demands to the airline’s management.

Data from the listed company indicates that as the world slowly recovers from the  Covid-19 pandemic shocks, the national carrier has been on course to grow its passenger numbers, with its planes remaining in the skies for longer.

For instance, it has increased flights between Nairobi and London from seven to 12 per week, with passenger numbers — also known as load factor — growing from 75 to 91 per cent. That means every flight to, or from London, is nearly full.

Grown flights to Rwanda

So are flights to, and from Paris, Johannesburg, New York, Zanzibar and Kigali. On the Rwanda route, KQ has grown its flights from four to 11 per week, and doubled the number of passengers per trip despite competition from RwandAir.

And this could be at the heart of the problems the carrier is flying into.

“We are improving the revenues,” CEO Allan Kilavuka told People Daily in an interview. “However, the strike will sabotage the recovery process.”

According to him, once its pilots saw KQ planes filling up, they started making fresh demands, including for the reinstatement of contributions to the staff provident fund scheme, which is meant to cater for their retirement.

In an industrial action notice dated October 17, 2022, KQ members of the Kenya Airlines Pilots Association (KALPA) demanded that the airline rescind its decision to stop contributions to the fund.

They also demanded a review of their working conditions and an overhaul of the firm’s board as well as management. They also accused the management of intimidating key members of the association.

“Internal mismanagement, incompetence and sheer impunity have continued to negatively impact the airline’s operations, financial viability as well as on the ability of the airline to maintain its image as the Pride of Africa,” the association said in the letter which also indicated that KALPA members would go on strike any time from today unless the four issues are resolved.

In a response to the association’s Secretary-General, Captain Murithi Nyagah, Kilavuka said a strike would unjustifiably inconvenience customers and staff. He asked for more time as the dispute had already been referred to the Ministry of Labour for mediation.

KQ ready to meet agrieved party

“Kenya Airways management is open to the conciliation process and interrogation of all issues raised and looks forward to parties working together amicably,” he said in the letter dated October 26.

In an interview with People Daily, he said the company had not recovered sufficiently financially to resume contributions to the provident fund, giving an assurance that this would be implemented as soon as the balance sheet improved.

And in a communication to all KQ employees, Kilavuka said the national carrier remains committed to resuming the provident fund contributions for all staff.

“Unfortunately, we currently do not have sufficient cash to do so,” he said in the internal communication dated October 28.

The other alternative available to the financially troubled carrier is to go back to shareholders or the National Treasury and ask for more money, a situation the management is not keen on given the company’s history of bailouts.

“There is a push to increase efficiency and reduce reliance on the Exchequer,” Kilavuka said of the firm’s relationship with the new political administration. This, he said, has made it necessary for KQ to seek to achieve more despite a slow down in new hiring.

One other complaint raised by the pilots is that the company has been hiring “incompetent staff”, an accusation the management denies, saying it has been working with various unions to slow down recruitment and to get its staff to do more with less as one way of averting lay-offs.

Labourrelations office on strike

When the dispute was referred to the Chief Industrial Labour Relations Officer, he directed KALPA to withdraw the strike notice to create room for reconciliation process.

“It is imperative that you proceed as guided and call off the strike as any move to the contrary will be unlawful and contrary to the Recognition Agreement and Collective Bargain Agreement, and statute law, which guide our relationship,” Kilavuka told the pilots.

However, when it became clear that they would not back down, the airline went to court to stop the strike.

On Monday, judge James Rika of the Labour Relations Court gave an interim order of injunction stopping the pilots from going on strike until the dispute is heard.

“The application filed by the Petitioner/Claimant (meaning KQ), is certified urgent,” the judge said as he directed the airline to serve the pilots with court papers relating to the dispute.

He also directed both parties to appear in court next Tuesday for further orders.

Yesterday, KALPA maintained that the strike notice expires today.

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