Kenya Airways pilots are seeking a government-appointed mediator to arbitrate over their ongoing dispute with the airline's management, saying that failure to resolve the labour standoff will lead to a halt in operations.
The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) has written to Labour Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani declaring a dispute with the national carrier.
The union is accusing Kenya Airways (KQ) of breaching sections of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed with the pilots.
Declaration of a labour dispute is usually part of the final stages of seeking a negotiated resolution before taking industrial action.
"The matter in which the dispute has arisen is that Kenya Airways has breached Clause 37 of the CBA and a memorandum of agreement on the Kenyanisation by engaging the pilots on contract terms without adhering to the stated agreement," said Kalpa chief executive and secretary general Muriithi Nyagah in the letter to Mr Yatani.
"We request you to urgently appoint a conciliator to assist the parties resolve the dispute to avoid eminent industrial unrest," the letter stated.
On Monday, the pilots wrote to KQ chief executive Sebastian Mikosz suspending their goodwill in the CBA negotiations, and accusing the carrier of violating an agreement that required them to hire Kenyan pilots only.
A prolonged industrial action would push the debt-laden airline deeper into the red. KQ's half-year loss to end of June more than doubled to Ksh8.56 billion ($83 million), sinking shareholders into a negative equity position of Ksh16.18 billion ($166 million).
Kalpa argues that the breach of CBA has elevated tensions within the pilot fraternity, and affected their promotion and training.
In a response to The EastAfrican's queries, the airline said that the negotiations on the CBA have not collapsed but have been "suspended", and will resume when the trade dispute mechanism is concluded.
"We are still in the process of recruiting additional captains on the Embraer and B737 fleet as planned and guided by the CBA. As part of the schedule optimisation to improve our operational efficiency, the on-time-performance (OTP) has improved to 82 per cent against an industry standard of 85 per cent," the airline said.
Proposed route network
The two sides have been sparring for the past two months, culminating in KQ's decision last month to hire 20 pilots on contracts.
Kalpa says the airline is acting against a proposed route network and fleet acquisition plan for 2019-2020, which the management shared with the pilots in the last quarter of last year.
"Indeed, it was certain that 537 pilots would be required to be operational by December 2020. The number of pilots at the time were 417, thus leaving a deficit of 120 pilots.
"Of huge concern however, was the required number of captains vis-à-vis the number of first officers who qualified for command, and it was therefore evident that external help was needed to support the plan," Mr Nyagah said.
Kalpa and KQ also discussed ways to bridge the gap in the number of pilots needed, and jointly agreed on a framework of on-boarding expatriate, type-rated captains for the Embraer fleet as per the provisions of Clause 37 in the CBA.
In the letter, Mr Nyagah says Kalpa gave further leeway to KQ management to hire qualified Kenyans as direct entry captains on the Embraer fleet, should the company encounter a scenario where the number of first officers qualified for command was exhausted.
The letter states that all measures were agreed upon jointly by both parties, culminating in the signing of the MOA on Kenyanisation on November 28, 2018. But by mid this year, the pilots say they noticed sluggish implementation of the agreed training plan.
"It is not clear how management was progressing with the hiring of expatriate captains on the Embraer. KQ management owned up to the challenges they faced in hiring expatriate captains in our meeting, and given the situation faced at the time and in trying to assist KQ with a solution, Kalpa once again granted further leeway to KQ management to hire non-type rated Kenyans as direct entry captains on the Embraer on permanent terms," Mr Nyagah said.
The Kalpa chief said he learnt of the breach of CBA on September 9, after he allegedly received communication from the KQ CEO stating their unilateral decision to hire pilots on contract basis on the Boeing 737.