Kenya Airways is on a fresh collision course with the pilots’ union after it asked its crew to fly faster on the Nairobi-Guangzhou route and halved the number of pilots on every trip in its latest cost-cutting plan.
The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) Secretary-General Murithi Nyagah says that directing pilots to cruise at a cost index of 300 on the route is illegal as it risks the lives of passengers and crew.
But KQ, as the carrier is known by its international code, maintained that all its flights are operated within the Kenyan law, the manufacturer’s flight crew training manual and the agreement with the union.
In a response to Business Daily queries, KQ Director of Operations Paul Njoroge said the Civil Aviation Act allows for duty time of up to 15 hours on international flights and 20 hours when three or more pilots are carried in the aircraft.
“Kenya Airways operates its flights to London, Amsterdam, Paris and used to operate to Bangkok and Hanoi with one captain and one first officer and these flights have a maximum duty time of 12 hours just like the China flight with the increased speed,” Mr Njoroge said.
“The agreement between KQ and the pilots union allows for flights up to a maximum of 10 hours and 30 minutes flight time with one captain and one first officer and all our flights are with the Kenyan law, within the approved operators' manual flight scheme and within the agreement with the union.”
Flight time is from the time you take off to the time you land while duty time is from the time you report at the airport to the time you leave the airport.
Mr Nyagah in the letter addressed to KQ CEO Allan Kilavuka accuses the airline of prioritising commercial interest over safety.
“The director of operations’ action amounts to gross negligence and misconduct as it disregards safety as the principal guidance but rather chose to prioritise commercial interest as the basis of his decisions,” says Mr Nyagah wrote.
The airline has also cut the number of pilots in a single flight from four to two in an effort to save on allowances and hotel costs.
But pilots argue that this will lead to fatigue on long routes and that it is against the standard practice where airlines fly at least four pilots on a single trip.
“Considering the serious breaches in safety and legal requirements, the regulator, KCAA and the board need to investigate his actions and provide guidance on his suitability as the KQ director of operations,” says Mr Nyagah in the letter.
Mr Nyagah says that reducing the number of pilots on the route from four to two on a single trip exposes the crew to fatigue.
“It is sufficient evidence that the operations as designed and planned by the director of operations is a desperate act and dangerous experience. The same must be flagged and stopped, “ he says.
KQ operates non-stop flights on the Nairobi-Guangzhou route. This is key to growing the Africa route business as travellers from other countries on the continent connect to China through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)
In the year to December last year, KQ generated Ksh27.71 billion ($246.6 million) in Africa, which was more than half of the airline’s turnover of Ksh52 billion ($462.8 million).
Europe brought in Ksh10.95 billion while China accounted for Ksh4.89 billion ($43.5 million) -- nine percent -- of the carrier’s sales.
But things changed in the wake of Covid-19, which had suspended travel in many parts of Europe, making the China route critical to KQ.
The pilots’ lobby says that it is important to have a structured framework through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to support Guangzhou operations legally, considering the length of flight duty involved and its impact on safety.
“Historical experience on achieved duty times justifies the need to have a variation from the CBA fleet agreement for this situation,” says Captain Nyagah.
The airline posted a Ksh11.49 billion ($102.2 million) net loss in the six months ended June— a 19.8 percent cut from the Ksh14.33 billion ($127.5 million) loss it incurred in the preceding similar period, taking its accumulated losses over the years to above Ksh127 billion ($1.1 billion).
KQ says the long recovery prospects and diminishing revenue in an environment of increased costs due to tight health and safety measures mean it will require a bailout to stay afloat.
“We are in a negative equity position, which means we are insolvent as an organisation, obviously made worse by the pandemic,” said Mr Kilavuka in August.
KQ resumed domestic flights in mid-July after the government cleared local air travel, and international flights were restarted on August 1.
The airline was struggling before the coronavirus outbreak, posting a loss of almost Ksh13 billion ($115.7 million) in 2019.
The carrier is currently recalling some of its former employees who were affected by restructuring last year, a move meant to conserve cash in the wake of Covid-19 that disrupted business.
The recruitment, which has been going on in the last two months, follows growing demand for air travel as passengers, especially on local destinations, that has seen competition among carriers increase.
KQ cut its workforce last year to survive the Covid-19 turbulence. It also resorted to a hiring freeze and unpaid leaves to stabilise its operating costs.
“We have seen an increase in demand and that is why we are recalling some of our employees,” said an official of the airline.