Agony for passengers as KQ pilots, aviation workers strike

Stranded passengers at the Moi International Airport in Mombasa

Stranded passengers at the Moi International Airport in Mombasa after Kenya Airways pilots went on strike on November 5, 2022. Most passengers flying with KQ to Nairobi were diverted to its low-cost subsidiary Jambojet. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NMG

More than 10,000 passengers were left stranded Saturday as aviation workers also joined pilots on a strike to protest against failure to implement a pay rise.

Dozens of flights were disrupted at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi after Kenya Airways (KQ) pilots went on strike Saturday to protest the withdrawal of their provident fund by their employer.

The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa), which draws a bulk of its membership from KQ, called for industrial action to protest non-payment of monthly pension contributions for staff, failure to implement pay agreements (CBA), and alleged victimisation of its members.

The pilots also want the board, its chairman Michael Joseph and chief executive officer Allan Kilavuka to resign, claiming they have mismanaged the airline.

Kenya Aviation Workers Union (Kawu) Saturday also asked their members to down their tools over Kenya Airport Authority’s failure to conclude and implement a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which was negotiated and agreed upon in 2019

About 53 planes destined for regional and international destinations were cancelled at JKIA with two KQ planes that were scheduled to leave for Mumbai rescheduled.

KQ flights to Ukunda and Mombasa from JKIA that were initially scheduled to depart at 9:15am and 1:05pm respectively were cancelled.

The flight schedule on the Kenya Airways display screens at JKIA showed that at least six outbound flights, which were set to depart between noon and 6:30pm were marked ‘delayed’.

Long queues were formed at the airport’s Terminal 1A where a majority of passengers check in for international as well as at domestic departures.

“I can’t calm down because I’m up there so you come up here with me. If you have issues with your government go deal with them. I’m doing business with you, I bought my ticket so deal with me the way I dealt with you; I gave you my money, fly me back to Ghana,” said a disgruntled KQ passenger.

'Guilty of contempt'

Kenya Airways CEO Allan Kilavuka said they anticipate the disruption will be massive given that KQ ferries 250,000 passengers and 5,800 tonnes of cargo per month.

He called on all pilots to report back to work by Sunday 10:30am failure to which management will take unspecified disciplinary actions against them.

“This strike action will cost KQ approximately Sh300 million per day. In a week, this translates to Sh2.1 billion,” said Mr Kilavuka Saturday.

In a terse press statement Saturday evening, the Kenya Airways chief people officer, Mr Tom Shivo, told pilots who were to be on duty as per the roster to report immediately, failure to which they will be “guilty of contempt”.

Because the Industrial and Labour Relations Court had issued an injunction against the strike, Mr Shivo said those who were participating in it will be construed to have defied lawful orders, which can result in dismissal.

Transport Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen said the action taken by pilots is a kin to economic sabotage.

He called upon the striking pilots to obey the court order that suspended the strike and give the government a chance to work on resolving their grievances.

“The government has injected billions of shillings in its efforts to turn around the fortunes of Kenya Airways, and is, therefore, keen to see these issues resolved,” said Mr Murkomen.

KQ froze paying the monthly pension contribution equivalent to 10 per cent of the workers’ pay at the peak of Covid-19 pandemic.

It requires about Sh1.3 billion annually for the contributions, with the pilots’ share accounting for about Sh700 million.

Kalpa is also demanding that KQ must adhere to all signed documents that have been agreed between them and that any future deviations will be in consultation with the union.

They are also demanding for the immediate sacking of KQ senior staffer such as Director of Operations Paul Njoroge, Mr Shivo, Employees Relations Manager Grace Wamiti, Chief Pilot Abubakar Bajaber, fleet manager for Boeing 787 Hassan Ahmed and fleet manager, Embraer Abok Ager claiming they are unfit for those positions.

“It is imperative that Kenya Airways shows good faith to avert this strike. It is squarely in the hands of Allan Kilavuka,” said Kalpa general-secretary and CEO Murithi Nyagah.

The airline, which has been surviving on State bailouts since the Covid-19 pandemic, reported a Sh9.8 billion loss in August — a better performance than the Sh11.48 billion loss it recorded in the same period a year earlier.

The airline’s chief commercial and customer officer, Julius Thairu, told the Business Daily in a past interview that passenger ticket sales have outperformed forecasts and were on course to returning an operating profit if the current trend persists to year-end.

But he warned that the strike could derail the carrier from meeting the targets.

Saturday, Kawu secretary-general Moss Ndiema asked members to withdraw labour and remain out of shop floor in all areas, “until KAA management finds the need and the urgency to conclude the CBA”.

KAA has had a long-running battle with unionisable Kawu members over pay increases.

Kawu members, who include airport customer service personnel, ground flight safety staff started the boycott at 2pm.

Meanwhile, tourism stakeholders at the Coast have suffered a major blow due to the strike.

The industry players said the strike has come as investors prepare to travel to the World Travel Market London which kicks off on Monday.

During the three days of WTA London, global tourism stakeholders will be showcasing their products to source for new markets.

“We always travel to London for an exhibition so the strike is coming at a very wrong time when we need to be exceeding confidence, particularly the source market that we are ready for business,” said the Kenya Association of Hotel Keepers and Caterers (KAHC), executive officer, Dr Sam Ikwaye.

The chairman of the Kenya Coast Tourism Association (KCTA), Victor Shitakha, said hotels had received cancellations, especially from local tourists, due to the industrial action.

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