When Dennis Awori presided over his last event as a director of Kenya Airways, he termed the past months as a period of “painful decisions”.
Among the major events that marked his brief stint as the chairman of the airline was a pilots’ strike in April that cost the jobs of several top executives, and another notice that pushed him out.
“I want to thank all the staff of KQ including the pilots,” Mr Awori said in his short and rather emotional farewell last week, after the firm released half-year results that were a significant improvement from 2015.
The national carrier had reported nearly Sh1 billion in profits from operations, even though its huge expenses on loans ensured the bottom line was negative. In the six months to September, its losses shrunk to Sh4.8 billion from Sh12 billion over a similar period last year.
Strikingly absent from the investor briefing was Awori’s successor, Michael Joseph, the former Safaricom chief executive, who reportedly sent his apologies as he was unavailable for the early morning event.
Awori, who holds several directorships at other firms, fell victim to the pilots’ scheme that was endorsed by State House and to the displeasure of other directors on the board.
In the interviews he gave after it became apparent he was leaving, he said his selection was only temporary after the exit of Evanson Mwaniki last year, and that the job required someone with a lot more time.
But in interviews with insiders, it has become apparent that the intervention by State House in averting the pilots’ strike was considered a dangerous precedent.
A committee formed to listen to the pilots’ demands, which were widely considered illegitimate, was sidestepped, reducing the negotiations to an informal discussion between the pilots’ lobby, officials close to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Joseph, but as an unwilling party.
The former Safaricom boss had been a director for less than 10 days but was the only representative of KQ in the deal struck to have Awori and chief executive Mbuvi Ngunze leave the airline. Further, the strike notice was not formally withdrawn but instead deferred to a later date, pending the execution of the agreement.
A top concern among the directors is the implication of the intervention among other workers in the aviation industry. A director who talked to The Standard in confidence said air traffic controllers, who are not affiliated to any airline but are members of a union bigger than the pilots’, are more critical to the operations of airports.
“What happens when these critical workers manning control rooms threaten to strike?” he asked.
While pilots’ unions the world over are incredibly powerful and often get their demands met, the requirements laid out by the Kenya Airlines Pilots Association (Kalpa) for a change in leadership may have been excessive.
Kalpa has, however, argued that forcing the change was in the pilots’ best interests, as employees.
Mr Ngunze is expected to vacate his position by the end of the year in an honourable exit, various insiders have said.
A statement from the board is expected by the end of this week, detailing succession plans at the helm of the airline, which does not have several executives, including substantive managers in the finance, commercial and human resources departments.