Saturday, August 15, 2009



By John Njiraini

Operations at national airline Kenya Airways (KQ) were thrown into confusion as employees went on strike. Panic and uncertainty were evident at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as thousands of travellers were stranded, flights delayed, and others cancelled. But as the ugly scenes were unfolding at the country’s busiest airport, KQ management put up a brave face and maintained that operations were on despite slight disruptions.

KQ Managing Director Titus Naikuni told a Press conference, early yesterday: "Majority of the employees are working, but some have not reported to work."

By midday, when many of the 3,000 members of the Aviation and Allied Workers Union failed to report on duty, the management sent out a short text message threatening to sack them.

"Dismissal process is in progress for those who have/will not operate," read part of the message from the airline’s Director of Flight Operations.

In a situation described by travellers, airport staff and police as "very bad", many KQ flights scheduled for take off were delayed for hours or cancelled.

One traveller booked on a 10.45am flight to London that was delayed for more than three hours described the scene at the departure lounge as "resembling a market place".

"There are too many people and the place looks like a market place," said the British citizen, who identified herself as Rehema, and has been on holiday in Kenya since July.

Some travellers confronted anyone in KQ uniform and demanded an explanation. But the response was one: Wait as the airline deals with the situation.

According to airport staff, things even threatened to get out of hand as some travellers, particularly from West Africa, became unruly.

But the heavy presence of police, who had been told to be on high alert, kept the calm.

Attempts by The Standard on Saturday to enter the Departure Lounge were thwarted by airport security who maintained they had orders not to allow in journalists. Airport staff said of the 42 flights set for takeoff to different parts of the world, only four did.

But even the four, striking employees alleged, took off after cabin crew were dragged from their homes by police and forced into the planes.

Naikuni however disputed the assertion in a late evening press conference. He said the police was providing security to employees who refused to join the strike and where being threatened.

According to him, 13 flights operated despite delays while 11 were cancelled. "Over 50 per cent of scheduled flights from our JKIA hub did operate," he said, adding that only 102 employees did not report to work.

No Way Out

He also disputed that two planes destined for Accra, Ghana, and Maputo, Mozambique were recalled mid-air. The flights that were cancelled were to Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Nigeria, Dubai, Zimbabwe, Kisumu among others.

A flight to Mombasa was also cancelled because only three cabin crew staff where available instead of the mandatory four.

Also cancelled was a 9am KLM flight to Amsterdam, Holland, operated by KQ cabin crew. KLM controls a significant stake in KQ and the two airlines operate a connection partnership. More flights are expected to be cancelled as the deadlock enters the second day.

This could badly affect the profitability of the airline that is already feeling the effects of the global financial crisis. As the situation infolded, four union official arrested on Thursday night were taken to court and charged with holding an illegal meeting. The unionists, including General Secretary Jimmy Masege, were however, released on a cash bail of Sh50,000 each.

Naikuni maintained the company could not increase staff salaries by the 130 per cent the union is demanding. He, however, said KQ was willing to raise its offer from eight per cent to between 11 and 13 per cent.

He said if the airline gave the hefty pay raise demanded, it would close shop because the wage bill would increase from the current Sh5 billion to Sh8.5 billion a year.

"We cannot afford to increase salaries by 130 per cent," he said, adding that the airline had left the matter to the Industrial Court, which is expected to rule on Monday on the standoff that has dragged since March.

However, more than 400 striking employees who gathered at the union’s offices in Embakasi, Nairobi, vowed to sustain the strike until their demands are met.

The employees chanted: "Naikuni must go!" and accused the top management of intolerance to their plight. The striking employees included cabin crew, flight engineers, cargo loaders, security; ground support staff and customers service staff.