Photograph — Travel Jumia

Hundreds of passengers have been left stranded at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Kenya after flights were disrupted, as aviation workers commenced a strike action early on Wednesday.

The Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KAWU) strike is in demand of an overhaul of the board and management of Kenya Airways (KQ) and Kenya Airports Authority (KAA). The request is against a proposed merger of both public aviation bodies and irregularities in staff hiring and compensation.

The planned merger, which will see the national carrier take over the operations of Nairobi’s JKIA was questioned by the KAWU. A statement released by the workers’ union on Monday said that “it is totally wrong, and even criminal, to imagine KQ taking over JKIA.”

An undated strike notice signed by the Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KAWU) Secretary-General Moses Ndiema states that the Union has issued a seven-day strike notice from date herein.

“The reason for the strike action is the mismanagement of the aviation sector. We advise all airport users and airline customers to consider alternative travel arrangements from Wednesday, March 6 2019,” Ndiema said.

Irregularities in top management

The aviation workers union has questioned how the national carrier’s Chief Executive, Sebastian Mikosz, Board Chairman Michael Joseph and a team of managers and consultants were allegedly paid a whopping $13 million in 18 months.

This among other alleged irregularities has led it to demand the removal of KAA chief executive Johnny Andersen and chairman of the board Isaac Awuondo and their KQ counterparts from office.

They want the KQ and KAA managers and directors to be dismissed, saying that “It is only then that workers in this industry will have the confidence that the issues affecting them will be addressed.”

Paralyzed air transport

National carrier KQ advised passengers with scheduled flights from 11 am onwards not to go to the airport until further notice. “Further to the strike by KAWU members, we expect disruptions on flights… we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused,” Kenya Airways said in a tweet.

As reported by the Nation, no plane has landed at the largest airport in Kenya and East Africa since 3am, with a Rwanda Air plane that was supposed to pick up passengers leaving empty. By 8am, tens of flights into and out of the airport had also been hit by the job boycott that is threatening to paralyze air transport in the country.

The flight schedule on the Kenya Airports Authority website showed that at least six inbound flights, which were set to land between 1.55am and 6.59am, were still marked ‘scheduled’. Similarly, at least 26 outbound flights were still marked scheduled several hours after they should have departed.

Long queues have formed at the airport’s gates, with some sources telling the Nation that some of the airport’s entry points had been closed by the workers on go-slow, prompting a heavy deployment of police.

KAWU chief arrested

Kenya Police arrested top KAWU executive Ndiema as he led demonstrations at the JKI Airport amid the ongoing strike. It was not immediately clear where he was taken.

Also, more than six workers of Kenya Airways and Kenyan Airports Authority were injured as police broke up their protests. The General Service Unit officers in full combat gear descended on the workers who were chanting and waving placards with clubs and kicks.

Hours after the arrest, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia, who went to assess the situation at the airport, branded striking aviation workers and their union officials “criminals”.

Macharia maintained that the job boycott was illegal and threatened to sack the striking workers, accusing the workers of sabotaging the economy by engaging in strike against the order of the Labour and Employment Court.

Embattled KQ and the controversial merger

The proposed merger of KQ and KAA (intended to hand the ailing airline a financial lifeline) has been an issue of controversy since it was announced and has generated sharp criticism from a section of leaders.

The national carrier’s bid to take over JKIA, as part of the merger, was challenged in court after aviation workers filed a petition to stop the deal. In the petition, KAWU alleged that the airline owes KAA, whose airport it plans to take over, billions of Shillings. The union questioned the feasibility of the proposal to hand over JKIA to the airline on the basis of its financial health which has been plagued by losses year on year.

In recent times, Kenya Airways has been reporting huge corporate losses which been largely blamed on poor management decisions, operational inefficiencies and failure to counter competition.

In 2016, the airline broke its own record for the country’s worst ever corporate results when it reported a net loss of $258 million for the 2015-16 financial year. Its results were hit by a series of one-off items including charges linked to a poor fuel hedging policy.

The national carrier then underwent a financial restructuring in 2017 which involved among other things, a group of 11 banks converting their combined $230 million debt into a 36 percent equity. For the first half of 2018, it reported a pretax loss of $40 million.

A cabinet paper prepared in May last year had warned that Kenya Airways had less than one year to survive if the merger flopped and the carrier did not get a significant capital injection.

Employees of the airline also argued that JKIA is the most profitable airport in Kenya that accounts for nearly 90 percent of KAA’s revenue stream. Thus, taking away the airport from KAA would leave it exposed, causing a fall in the country’s revenue stream. According to Ndiema, the merger would cost Kenya billions of Shillings in revenue and massive job losses that will ruin livelihoods.

Later in February, the deal was suspended by Members of Parliament after the Public Investments Committee (PIC) said it would render the profitable aviation regulator, KAA, bankrupt. A turn of events that leaves the cash-strapped national carrier with a bleak future based on its weak financial standing.

If not addressed immediately, the ongoing strike could paralyse totally all services in the country’s aviation sector. KAWU’s members include cabin crew, security, air traffic controllers, and aircraft maintenance service providers.

The strike also affects customer service, fire and rescue, ground flight services, engineering, finance, transport, equipment, loading and cabin grooming services.

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