Kenya Airways (KQ) is set to cut down on routes and hire 20 pilots on contract to reduce flight cancellations that are costing the national carrier Sh5 billion annually.
In a memo to pilots, director of flight operations Paul Njoroge says the KQ brand is under threat due to thousands of disrupted travellers who may opt not to fly with the airline again.
The first two weeks of August were particularly bad, with 91 flight cancellations, of which 68 were due to crew constraints.
"As a result of the above losses, in the next few weeks we shall be reducing the network to avoid further erosion of the brand due to the disruptions," KQ says in the letter.
"This means the market share we have fought hard to win shall be eroded and winning this back will be a much harder task due to diminished customer confidence."
It is not yet clear which routes will be affected. Outgoing chief executive Sebastian Mikosz has written to staff saying the details will be shared in the "coming days". The surprise decision negates Mr Mikosz's optimism two months ago that the airline's revenue growth was pegged on the expansion of its network.
It also comes barely two months after KQ launched flights to Rome, Italy, and Geneva, Switzerland, in addition to the direct flights to the Unites States.
KQ says it has a shortage of 106 pilots and is moving to hire 20 pilots on two-year contracts to serve its Boeing 737 fleet.
This even as KQ blames Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) for the restrictive hiring clauses in collective bargaining agreements (CBA) that have seen pilot numbers lag behind the flight numbers.
However, Kalpa general secretary captain Muriithi Nyagah said KQ management is paying for being overambitious in expanding routes without addressing crew shortage.
"Why increase frequency when you don't have the right numbers? It was always going to be a recipe for failure," said Mr Nyagah.
While Kalpa has welcomed the move to hire 20 new pilots, it says the number is not sufficient.
KQ, with Sh8.5 billion loss in the first half of 2019, targets trimming operational costs and pilot salaries, which it says eat up 40 per cent of the payroll but comprises just 13 per cent of all workers.
This could set the airline on a collision course with the pilots' association, whom the airline says have been standing in the way. KQ said in a recent report to Parliament that Kalpa went on a go-slow and rejected a proposal to hire contract pilots for the cargo aircraft last year. "We are not opposed to KQ hiring pilots but we just need to know where they are coming from, the qualifications and the returns given that we have qualified Kenyans in KQ who qualify to be captains," said Mr Muriithi.
"We think the recruitment process is unnecessarily long. There are many Kenyans with commercial pilot licences but our process is too slow and only recruits a paltry number."
Meanwhile, Kalpa has supported the planned nationalisation of Kenya Airways but wants to be involved in the process.
In a briefing, the association said while nationalising the airline might be a good idea, they need a seat at the table and involvement in the decision-making process.
Additional reporting by Albert Mwazighe