Kenya Airways under pressure as engineers’ strike persists

Thursday December 7 2017

Kenya Airways chief executive officer Sebastian Mikosz

Kenya Airways chief executive officer Sebastian Mikosz. Kenya's aviation regulator KCAA has asked the airline to ensure safety of aircraft remains their top agenda. PHOTO FILE | NATION 

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The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) Wednesday waded into the labour dispute between national carrier Kenya Airways and its striking engineers, demanding assurances that the tussle will not affect aircraft maintenance contracts and plans.

The KCAA in a letter dated December 1 asked the airline, popularly known as KQ, to submit the maintenance plans for all its aircraft and the list of technical staff involved.

“We acknowledge receipt of your email dated November 30 on the above subject matter (maintenance engineers’ strike). You are required to submit the following by end of today December 1... four months maintenance plan for all aircraft i.e December 2017 to March 2018…all contracted and sub-contracted maintenance agreements and current list of all certifying staff,” the KCAA said in its letter to KQ.

The KCAA, the agency charged with regulation and oversight of aviation safety and security, had also asked KQ to send representatives to a meeting planned for December 4.

It was not clear whether the meeting took place.

KCAA director-general Gilbert Kibe did not respond to queries on the matter by the time of going to press.

About 161 technicians last Wednesday downed their tools demanding higher pay.

Pay increase

KQ later disclosed that the workers wanted a pay increase of up to three-and-a-half times to match what their counterparts employed by the Gulf airlines are earning.

But even as the regulator sought information on aircraft maintenance, KQ insisted it had taken all the steps to ensure the safety of passengers in the wake of the strike.

The airline, however, declined to disclose details of its meeting with the regulator, or even whether it took place at all.

“We are in compliance with all the KCAA requirements, including maintenance. We are not in a position to comment on our regular formal meetings with the regulator,” said KQ chief executive officer Sebastian Mikosz in a statement.

“We have not experienced any delays at all occasioned by lack of staff. We have adequate maintenance staff capacity to cater for our operations.”

Reports from KQ’s operation base at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, however, indicated that two flights had failed to take off on time, a delay the airline attributed to network challenges that were later restored.

KQ said last week that its technical department has more than 600 employees at various levels, meaning that only 15 per cent had participated in the strike.

It has opposed the employees’ wage demands arguing that the engineers have only recently been awarded a pay rise.

The airline’s management has responded to the latest strike with dismissal of all the technical staff deemed to have participated in the strike and advertised their positions.

Court order

The workers then moved to court and obtained orders barring the airline from firing them or hiring any replacements pending the hearing and determination of their case.

It remains to be seen whether the national carrier will succumb to demands for higher wages, having just completed a complex and protracted balance sheet restructuring deal with key creditors to save it from imminent collapse.

The engineers went on strike in December 2016 to press for higher pay, which combined with the continued loss of talent to Middle-East carriers forced the airline to review salaries in spite of the record-breaking loss it made that year.

KQ’s recovery is significantly hinged on shrewd cost management targeting, among others, its bloated wage bill and high cost of operating and maintaining aircraft.

A fall in expenses has most recently seen the airline cut its net loss for the six months to September by 20.5 per cent to Ksh3.8 billion ($36.8 million).

It, however, faces a new challenge of keeping employee costs down after its staff in Nigeria threatened to go on strike demanding salary increase as per a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) they say was signed two years ago.

In a rejoinder, the airline says that the parties had been negotiating the CBA up until September 2017, but that it cannot be implemented yet as it had not been signed by both.

“Parties have agreed to engage further with a view to resolving the issues and the strike action by the union has since been suspended,” said Mr Mikosz.