Plan by Kenya Airways pilots to go on strike is ill-advised

KQ plane model at the airline's headquarters in Nairobi, February 19, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Industrial action has been defined as “any measure taken by trade unions to reduce productivity in the workplace.” It can take the form of a strike, which is refusal to work as a form of organised protest, or a go-slow.

Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) has threatened to go on strike. In a notice dated October 19, Kalpa has alluded to disputes with Kenya Airways (KQ) management which includes, among other issues, the withdrawal of the staff provident fund.

The Ministry of Labour recently proposed a formal consultative meeting and asked Kalpa to call off the threatened industrial action to allow for the conciliation process to proceed.

However, the union took an obdurate position saying, “Kalpa cannot and will not participate in the process with the individuals that are currently holding managerial positions at Kenya Airways Plc.” Kalpa subsequently boycotted the meeting with only ministry officials and airline representatives turning up.

Interesting questions arise: Is the intended strike really about airline issues or is it an ad hominem attack against select individuals at KQ aimed at forcing them out of the company? Has the KQ management demonstrated “incompetence, poor leadership and governance” as stated in a Kalpa letter to the conciliator? Has the provident fund been unilaterally and unreasonably withheld as the pilots allege?

A critical look at Kalpa’s assertions of poor airline management reveals them to be unsupported by any metrics of performance. In fact, data from annual reports and other sources point to the polar opposite.

For instance, whereas KQ’s top line has always registered growth, the bottom line has, for close to a decade, told a different story. However, under current management, the problematic differences appear to have been resolved as reflected in the higher revenues and improved operational efficiencies.

Major awards

Testament to this is the fact that year on year losses have dropped significantly. In August, the airline posted a Sh9.8 billion loss for the half-year compared to Sh11.48 billion recorded in the same period a year earlier.

Further, performance indices like On Time Departures were at 75 per cent compared to the industry average of 70 per cent. It is certainly not for nothing that the airline recently scooped four major awards at the World Travel Awards Africa and Indian Ocean Gala Ceremony 2022.

That the provident fund has not been paid in a timely manner does not point to systemic failures. Rather, it is directly attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected KQ and virtually every legacy carrier. Kenya Airways CEO Allan Kilavuka clarifies that the contributions to the fund were suspended due to the sponsor’s dire financial status as sanctioned by the fund trustees and in line with Trust Deed rules and the Retirement Benefits Authority.

Mr Kilavuka lays out a timetable of payment of any arrears “subject to affordability and cash availability which is dependent on a network devoid of disruptions”. He thus lays bare spurious claims of unilateral and whimsical administration of the fund.

It is noteworthy that Kalpa accounts for just 10 per cent of KQ’s workforce, yet takes home the equivalent of 45 per cent of the overall pay to employees.

Further, Kalpa pilots work an average of 45 hours a month against the industry average of 80 hours. Only a third of pilots’ salaries are as a result of time spent on actual flying. Two thirds are formed by inordinately high layover allowances and other extraneous benefits.

It is difficult to dismiss Kalpas determination to go on strike as merely the peccadilloes of an overpaid and underworked lot. The fate of an organisation that is turning around, and the future of non-striking pilots, other airline employees, tourism, horticulture, mama mbogas and traders who depend on it, should not be left in the hands of a few individuals.

-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst