Pilot strike adds to Kenya Airways woes

Pilots at Kenya Airways plan to go on strike from Saturday to seek better working conditions in defiance of a court order, adding to the woes of the troubled national carrier.

The airline, part owned by the government and Air France-KLM, is one of the biggest in Africa, connecting multiple countries to Europe and Asia, but it is facing turbulent times, including years of losses.

The Kenya Airlines Pilots Association (KALPA) said a series of meetings with airline management had failed to resolve grievances.

No Kenya Airways flight flown by KALPA pilots will depart Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from 6:00 am (0300 GMT) on Saturday, said union secretary general Murithi Nyaga, without specifying how long the strike would last.

"Kenya Airways management's actions have left us with no other option," Nyaga said, adding that a 14-day notice on the industrial action had ended without a solution.

"We had hoped that the management of the airline would soften its stance and engage in negotiation on the issues raised."

The pilots, who have had a particularly fraught relationship with management, are pressing for the reinstatement of contributions to a provident fund.

They also want back payment of all salaries stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic.

- 'Delay and disrupt' -

Kenya Airways on Wednesday warned the strike would jeopardise its recovery and said the pilots' grievances did not warrant such action.

"Industrial action is unnecessary," board chairman Michael Joseph said. "It will delay and disrupt the financial and operational recovery and cause reputational damage to Kenya Airways."

On Monday, the airline won a court injunction stopping the strike, but the pilots' union has nevertheless vowed to down tools.

An official at KALPA, which has 400 members, told AFP the pilots "were acting within the provisions of the law" and that they were yet to be served with a court injunction.

Earlier this week, Kenya Airways estimated losses at $2.5 million per day if the strike goes ahead.

The airline was founded in 1977 following the demise of East African Airways and flies over four million passengers to 42 destinations annually.

But its slogan "The Pride of Africa" rings hollow as it operates thanks to state bailouts following years of losses.

Like other carriers around the world, Kenya Airways saw its revenue nosedive after the pandemic grounded planes worldwide because of stringent travel restrictions, devastating the aerospace and tourism industries.

Despite the gloom, its cargo operations grew slightly in 2020 as it switched to delivering Covid vaccines and maximised its expertise in flying fresh roses to Europe.

- 'Joke of the continent' -

In August, the airline reported a $81.5 million half-year loss citing high fuel costs, albeit a marked improvement on the $94.6 million loss in the same period last year.

This is despite the Kenyan government injecting some $520 million to keep the airline afloat.

On Wednesday, the airline's management said it was on a path to recovery, flying at least 250,000 passengers each month, and aiming to cut its overall operating costs by 10 percent before the end of next year.

Kenya's tourism arrivals, a major foreign exchange earner, have jumped more than 90 percent to 924,000, the government said in September, projecting that the number could hit 1.4 million by December.

Analysts say a misguided expansion strategy launched in 2011 is the root of the firm's problems, a move that called for the purchase of new Boeing planes with the objective of doubling the size of its network.

A plan to nationalise the carrier, which would see it exempt from paying taxes on engines, maintenance and fuel, remains unimplemented.

On Tuesday, Kenya's leading newspaper the Daily Nation called for a forensic audit of the state bailouts, saying the carrier had become "the joke of the continent."

"It's like pouring public funds down the drain," the paper wrote in an editorial.

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