A shortage of pilots has cost Kenya Airways Sh5 billion in about 12 months through flight cancellation and delays amid plans by the national carrier to cut down routes in a race to improve efficiency.
The airline has a shortage of 106 pilots that has led to cancellation or delay of some of its flights, exacerbating its troubles with frustrated customers.
Kenya Airways has had to forego revenue and compensate passengers in the form of accommodation.
A memo from the carrier’s head of operations, Paul Njoroge, said the airline will start reducing flight routes as it proceeds with the hiring of 20 pilots on contract.
“In response to the crew shortage, we have unfortunately had to shrink the network to ensure that we deliver on our brand promise,” said Mr Njoroge.
“The projected impact of the crew shortage is $50 million (Sh5 billion), which could have been avoided had KAPLA (Kenya Airline Pilots Association) worked with management in 2018 to recruit pilots directly to B737 (Boeing)”.
Kenya Airways linked 74 per cent of the 91 flight cancellations in the first two weeks of August to crew disruptions, adding that it cargo division has been hit hard. The airline’s management has in the recent past attributed the cancellations to crews calling in sick ahead of flights.
According to the airline, crew disruptions deepen during weekends as well as peak time for travels.
“What we are pointing out is a trend of ad hoc sickness over the weekend that appears not to be genuine,” said Captain Njoroge.
The airline spends 40 per cent of its payroll on pilots alone although they account for only 13 per cent of all its workforce.
In response to the memo from the management, Kalpa officials yesterday said the union was not opposed to the hiring of the 20 pilots, but has expressed concerns over the likelihood of the jobs going to foreigners.
“We are not opposed to KQ hiring pilots but we just need to know where they are coming from, the qualifications and the returns, given that we have qualified Kenyans in KQ who qualify to be captains,” said Muriithi Nyagah, the secretary-general of the union.
The union blamed Kenya Airways for the crew shortage, arguing that the hiring of pilots had not matched the airline’s expansion.
Kenya Airways now flies to 53 destinations, up from 47 in 2010. The airline faces stiff competition, not just from major players like Emirates and Turkish Airlines, but from African carriers as well.
The government-owned Ethiopian Airlines is the biggest regional threat and flies to more than 120 destinations. Both Uganda and Tanzania have poured cash into their flag carriers in the past three years, joining countries such as Rwanda and Togo, which have also ramped up investment in their own carriers.
Kenyan Airways is operating in a tough market. The International Air Transport Association projects African airlines will post a combined $100 million loss in 2019, even as the global industry generates a profit of $28 billion.
Parliament voted last month to renationalise the loss-making airline, which is struggling under a mountain of debt and taxes and has also had three changes of chief executives in the past five years.
The Kenyan carrier, which is 48.9 per cent government-owned and 7.8 per cent held by Air France-KLM, was once held up as a model of successful privatisation after its shares were floated at the Nairobi Securities Exchange.