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The bad blood between national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ) and its pilots’ union has escalated even as a biting shortage of pilots continues to cost the airline much-needed revenue.

One would think that after years of strife between KQ and the pilots’ union, resolving the shortage that has seen the ailing airline lose Sh5 billion in just one year would be a uniting factor. Instead, it has widened the rift between the two.

The pilots under the aegis of the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) argue that since January, they have saved KQ over Sh3.7 billion from potential flight cancellation costs.

But KQ reckons otherwise, insisting local pilots are expensive to maintain.

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This perhaps explains why the national carrier has opted to hire 20 foreign pilots on contract for its Boeing 737 fleet.

The decision has sparked a fresh row, with the pilots last week suspending negotiations on a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) over the issue.

Kalpa has also filed a trade dispute at the Ministry of Labour seeking arbitration over KQ’s alleged reneging on the CBA which, among other things, opposes the hiring of foreigners at the expense of local pilots.

In an interview with Financial Standard, Kalpa General Secretary Murithi Nyagah warned that KQ’s cost-cutting strategy of shunning local pilots would only pile more losses for the airline whose core business is flying passengers.

He said the airline’s flight schedule requires 600 pilots, but only 414 pilots have been operating the routes. Also, a route network and fleet acquisition plan for 2019-2020 indicates that 537 pilots would be required by December 2020 if the struggling carrier is to operate optimally. KQ in September announced the cancellation of some routes due to the pilots’ shortage.

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Kalpa maintained that local pilots should be hired on a permanent and pensionable basis despite the airline’s assertion that it is expensive.

“Their management style is that fewer people should work for more in order to save money, but even in all that cost-cutting, the airline is still making losses,” said Mr Nyagah.

He said pilots are suffering burn-out as they have to cover an intensive 12-18-hour shift on a 24-hour cycle and are owed 40,000 annual leave days by the airline.

“KQ pilots are the ones keeping it afloat. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty,” said Nyagah.

He said as a carrier, KQ lacks a strategy for the future in light of the fact that recruiting just one pilot took between four and five months.

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“KQ can’t say we are sabotaging the airline... when you are running a business, you need to know how many pilots you need to run the schedule. The management is to be blamed for the shortage,” he said.

When reached for comment on how KQ plans to resolve the pilots’ shortage, the airline’s chairman Michael Joseph promised to get back to us but had not done so by the time of going to press.

Nyagah said the shortage had been worsened by the exit of 140 pilots in the last three years to join other carriers, especially those from the Middle East.

KQ pilots are relatively well paid, with the airline spending 40 per cent of its payroll on their salaries.

On the nationalisation of the airline, Nyagah called for more openness, saying the process lacks stakeholder involvement.

“We can only support it if indeed it will change fortunes of KQ and take care of our interests,” he said.

Transport Principal Secretary Esther Koimett described nationalisation as a “complex process” that would be long and called for patience, saying that more details would be given out soon.

“It’s a long process that is complex as it also involves legal issues. What I can say now is that work is ongoing and once we’re ready you’ll know,” she told Financial Standard on phone.

MPs in July voted to nationalise the airline as a way of saving it from mounting debts, meaning that the Government will buy out minority shareholders, including Air France-KLM’s 4.8 per cent stake.

KQ has been on a loss-making streak and posted a Sh7.5 billion loss for the year ending December 2018. It posted a pretax loss of Sh8.5 billion in the 2019 half-year.  

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