POINT OF VIEW

Downsizing not the solution to KQ troubles – KALPA

Let all stakeholders and government come together, we have a positive conversation that will turnaround our national carrier

In Summary
  • If we downsize now, the competitors will put the last nail on our coffin.
  • For the last two to three years, one of the reasons KQ has been losing revenues is because of competition
Murithi Nyagah - general secretary and CEO KALPA (Right) when pilots presented proposals to the Transport Committee of Parliament on the PIIP.
Image: COURTESY

Kenya Airways is currently downsizing operations including staff rationalisation in what management believes will help cut costs. At least 1,500 employees among them pilots, cabin crew, administrative and technical staff are targeted in the process set to end in September.

The Star's Martin Mwita spoke to the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) General Secretary-Captain Murithi Nyagahon the troubles at the airline, challenges and a way forward as the national carrier moves into nationalisation.

Close to four months of not flying, how does it feel to start flying again?

We appreciate so much that we have gone back to flying. We are proud to be flying the country's national carrier putting Kenya's flag out there, proudly. This is our profession and the love of flying is in our blood and as pilots, we are very happy and ready for the task

 From the way, we see a lot of passengers are also happy to start flying. We hope that the resumption of flights will help bring back the much-needed revenues for Kenya Airways. There is an opportunity to do some very good business.

After such a long period of not flying, what are pilots required to do and how prepared are you to resume flying?

Most of us have been revalidated. Some of us, however, have had their licenses expire and still waiting for revalidation, others are under the process of being revalidated so that we are all current and within the law.

Also when we were on the ground, we have been keeping ourselves sharp, we read our books, we have always been preparing ourselves for this moment so pilots are well prepared and good to go.

 

Any challenges in getting revalidated and training?

The major challenge is getting Visas. Right now there is a backlog on visa applications. If you apply today, it could take up to a month before getting an interview. This is something that should not be happening because the government announced early enough on the resumption of flights.

KQ should also have started planning early to ensure people are revalidated, people have gone for training so that when the government opens skies you are ready to go.

What challenges have you experienced with the resumption of flights?

We have experienced some flight cancellations as recently as last week when we saw a few cargo flights canceled due to lack of crew, including a flight to Dubai that was not able to depart because of lack of crew. A flight to London was also delayed. This is at a time when the company is in the progress of downsizing so I believe the operational challenges caught them unaware.

There are concerns that those who had been revalidated are part of those sent home, is this the cause for lack of crew?

In regard to the cabin crew that could be the reason. Some who were scheduled to fly this month could be among those that have been let go but in regards to pilots, no. But note that the majority of us are yet to be revalidated so this of course will have an effect on operations.

We have certain fleets where you find most peoples' licenses have expired. Kenya Civil Aviation has given us an alternative method of compliance that can expedite the revalidation process and ensure operations are not affected but unfortunately, KQ management has not embraced these provisions given by the regulator hence the hitches being seen.

There is also a visa problem for some countries which is stopping some pilots from traveling. If we don't address these issues, we will have problems when operations ramp-up.

How can the revalidation process be hastened?

KALPAs recommendation is that we should use the alternative method of compliance provided by the regulator (KCAA), which is quick and cost-effective until such time we will be able to conduct the regular compliance which we estimate maybe after three months.

At the moment the alternate method of compliance is our only viable option and it is working worldwide. If we don't utilise it, then the entire process will cost a lot of time and money, and cancellations will continue.

KQ has resumed with almost half its routes, what happens to the other pilots who will not be able to fly due to availability of aircraft?

Right now Kenya Airways has not given us any plan. But as we know with the numbers that we have(pilots), we are not enough for the task ahead even with the reduced operations.

In fact, this is the time we feel like we have the right numbers in terms of manning the operations and the schedule. But as the business ramps up, we are going to be short. I can say we are ok but once the schedule picks up, we will need more pilots.

KQ management has affirmed readiness to operate during this Covid-19 pandemic, how are pilots prepared?

Pilots are very prepared. The only problem is that they have stopped testing for the crew( pilots and cabin crew). We believe Covid-19 protocols should be strictly followed. The crew needs to be tested prior to flights. We have families, we want to know that the person who is flying with you is free of Covid. That creates confidence amongst ourselves.

Even passengers need to know that the team that is taking care of the aircraft are healthy and free of Covid. But I guess they have realised they are short of the crew so if people test positive they will be away on quarantine meaning there will be no one to fly.

They should not put the business ahead of health. We are front line workers in the airline's operations hence we need to be protected. Remember, we have lost a member to Covid so let's all be cautious.

KQ management insists on 'rightsizing' if the airline is to survive. What is your take?

As KALPA, we wrote an open letter to His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta because we have fresh ideas on how to go about these issues. The Rightsizing we all know is downsizing Kenya Airways. For the last two to three years, one of the reasons KQ has been losing revenues is because of competition.

 If we downsize now, the competitors will put the last nail on our coffin. You cede some of the routes and the ground that you have, that vacuum will be taken over by our competitors and once that happens, it will be difficult to recover. Look at Air Afrique, they went the same way and were never able to recover.

 Cameroon Airlines, Uganda Airlines which is trying to come back, Nigeria Air, Zimbabwe, Tanzania our neighbours...once an airline goes down, the guarantee of it coming back is next to zero. KQ management needs to get it right.

 Instead of sending pilots home, it should be getting the numbers right. Currently, pilots have over 40,000 days of accrued leave meaning we have been operating at a deficit. We need to make sure that we have the numbers and operational strategy to make a strong come back.

So what are you saying?

Kenya Airways management should be asking itself; how do we come out stronger? If you look at the National Aviation Management Bill, 2020, one of the purposes is to help KQ grow and become a strategic airline that can be able to compete with regional airlines and be a force and a pride of Africa.

Former CEO Sebastian Mikosz, an expert, now at IATA (International Air Transport Association) as the Senior Vice President for Member and External Relations, once said, and he was categorical and very clear, that the only way Kenya Airways can come out of this quagmire is to expand.

So downsizing or rightsizing is the wrong way to go. We are not going to recover, we will be like South African Airways where the government will be pumping in money but we are not growing. In the last five years, KQ was bigger than Ethiopian Airlines.

Today we cannot compete. Look at them right now, they are expanding, they are taking this time to expand. This is one airline that is waiting for us to make a mistake and they take over our market. If we are not smart we are done.

So what needs to be done?

The only way to protect this market share is by expanding, putting in place the right people to run this show. From the board level to the management. We need the right people with the right expertise and with the government now injecting funds and support, we will be good to go.

Who are KQ's biggest competition and threats?

One of our biggest competition is Turkish Airlines. It has more destinations in Africa than any other airline. Currently, they operate three of our biggest aircraft which were leased to them, Boeing777-300s, with a seating capacity of 400 passengers.

We have actually supported them to grow if you ask me because we are paying part of the leases. But the person who is waiting to capture our market share is Ethiopian Airlines, they are watching and waiting. During this Covid-19 pandemic, they are moving more cargo and passengers from Nairobi than Kenya Airways. RwandAir is another threat.

The financial muscles that they have are huge. Qatar Airways has a 49 per cent stake in the carrier. Now they have built a huge airport in Rwanda. Ethiopia and Rwanda are building the capacity to take over the aviation hub status that Nairobi has enjoyed. They want to dethrone us.

Kenya is geopolitically positioned, we don't need to work very hard because where we are placed as a country, we have the best connectivity, whether you are going to Europe, East, West or South, we are well placed. We need to protect this.

KQ has remained in losses since 2015, what do you think is the biggest problem at KQ?

The biggest problem which is also a threat to Kenya Airways is management itself because the decisions made by the board, advised by senior management, are going to run this airline to the ground. It doesn't matter how much money the government gives KQ. For instance, the decision they are making to downsize will not make Kenya Airways survive.

This is something that started in 2004. Kenya Airways has been retrenching people every two years or so but what are the results? The airline keeps going down. Sending home staff will not help because even if all employees worked for free, KQ will still make losses because of what is going out to other costs.

For instance the leases, KQ is paying way more than the market rates. An example is an aircraft leased to Turkish airlines, they pay the market rate and Kenya Airways has to top-up. These are the things that need to be addressed because that is where money gets drained. The wage bill has nothing to do with high operational costs.

So where did the rain start beating KQ?

The rain started beating Kenya Airways when former CEO Titus Naikuni stepped foot in the company. At the time he came, KQ was doing very well financially, he rode with the tide of his predecessor and when that business plan was over, he never offered anything. They came up with Project Mawingu. Initially, it was a very good idea but down the line, it was mutilated. It has remained a problem throughout different management until where we are today.

If you believe you have a solution to turnaround KQ, how come you have not sought management and operational positions?

How do we apply for jobs that are never advertised? It is either someone is appointed to act then confirmed without any interviews, or handpicked to head the airline even if they don't come top of the interviews, for the few that have been done. 

But all we are saying is get the right people for the job. We have a lot of aviation experts out there who can do a good job. As pilots, we are professionals in our job and ready to fly the country's flag carrier to greater heights. We will continue advising management on what we feel is best for our airline.

Do you think nationalisation will help turn around the airline?

That's is the best option we have right now. With the debts that KQ has and the losses it continues to make, it cannot survive. Nationalisation is the only way out but it is not a silver bullet if it is not handled well. Look at South African Airways for instance. Let's not have political appointees to run our airline. Let's get aviation experts on the table.

We also need to have representation from sectors that are key in the aviation industry such as tourism, horticulture and the likes. Let us get it right because the contribution of KQ to this country's economy is humongous. Nairobi is a regional hub and hosts headquarters to hundreds of multi-nationals operating in the country, the region and Africa at large.

We have major embassies here making Nairobi one of the best globally connected cities. All these are reasons why we need to turnaround our national carrier and remain competitive.

KQ has lost a lot of talent in recent years mainly engineers. What is your take?

First, let me tell you one thing. Our Kenya Airways engineers are highly trained and one of the best in the world. We have a lot of these engineers working for our competitors mainly in the Middle East. They are the ones running the show there. Even the ones we have right now, despite the workforce being stretched, they are doing a stellar job. We respect them.

The reason why they lost engineers is that they were unable to deal with an internal industrial issue. They deiced to fire the majority of the very qualified engineers. More than 120 left.

Some of those who remained felt they were not motivated and left. Most of them got jobs and they end up working on KQ aircraft out there. For instance, KQ flies aircraft to Abu Dhabi or Jordan for maintenance and the people working on them are the same people they fired, doing the same job at higher costs.

This is a brain drain that will haunt KQ for a very long time. One good thing Naikuni did, he valued local engineers. Boeing built KQ a hanger for the 777s. KQ engineers used to do checks within East and Central Africa but with brain drain, we cannot do the checks locally despite having the facility.

Our safety in terms of maintenance is however spot-on. The safety of Kenya Airways aircraft is in good hands of our engineers even though they are stretched.

What are pilots doing to help KQ turnaround?

Good question. Right now, we have agreed to a salary cut of 82 per cent. We are only taking home 18 per cent and we are still flying. We are still ensuring the pride of Africa is up in the skies. We don't know what management is taking home weather they reduced theirs or not. We have also offered numerous solutions to the Transport and Labour ministries to help the airline survive and grow, something we are still open to doing.

You recently wrote an open letter to the President. What are your expectations?

We wrote to His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta sharing some of the great ideas we believe can help the national carrier remain afloat and for future growth. We have asked our President to help in ensuring KQ does not cede ground to competitors.

We know the President understands the importance of Kenya Airways to this country as a strategic tool that has and will continue growing the country's economy. We are hopeful he will listen to our plea, be able to engage us, and give us a chance to offer solutions that will help our airline. We are very positive he will support us.

Parting shot?

We need to look at KQ critically. Kenya Airways is more than an airline. It is the pride of Kenyans and Africa. Let all stakeholders and government come together, we have a positive conversation that will turnaround our national carrier. Let us all jealously guard this precious and critical airline that has helped make Kenya become what is is today.