By ROY GACHUHI - Daily Nation (Kenya)
In a confounding move, Kenya Airways this week wrote to some of its Boeing 777 captains ‘redeploying’ them for three years to its high-flying competitor, Ethiopian Airlines.
A confidential letter seen by the Saturday Nation has provoked legal questions from its association, setting the stage for an industrial conflict with KQ’s management as the airline seeks to cut down its workforce by 600 people.
We have established that 21 captains and 18 First Officers have received the letters. In aviation, a captain is the pilot in charge of the aircraft while the First Officer is the co-pilot.
The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) has been informed that another 36 of its members will be among the 600 staff KQ plans to retrench. Sources also said Kalpa is likely to move to court to challenge the redeployment.
KQ sold most of its long-haul B777 planes to Oman Air meaning many of its pilots are now being underutilised. But the airline only leased out the other big aircraft -- the Boeing 777-300 and 787-8.
This fleet may be returned to KQ after the lease period is over and may explain why the redeployment is for three years.
The letter is signed by Mrs Latiffa Cherono Murage, the Acting Head of HR Management Relationship. The captains have up to next Tuesday, April 12, to sign an attached form for onward transmission to Ethiopian Airlines, also known by abbreviation, ET.
We can authoritatively report that by the time of going to press, none of the captains had signed it. Kalpa has called a meeting on Monday to chart a way forward.
Says the letter: “As you are aware, the company has in the past few years experienced great business challenges that have led to poor financial results. As such, there has been a decline in the expected pace of growth of the network and subsequent reduction in fleet size including the B777 fleet, which you operate. This development led to most of the B777 pilots being underutilized in flying duties over the last several months and has therefore necessitated the company, as part of Operation Pride turnaround programme, to look for alternative deployment opportunities for you.”
It adds: “Our goal is to enable you to continue utilizing your experience and skills which are valuable to us and to the airline industry. In this regard, KQ has secured a placement for you in ET. While doing this, the company did its best to negotiate with ET the most favourable terms and conditions possible, that on a net-net comparable basis positively meet the compensation you currently receive from KQ (further details of the terms and conditions of service will follow in due course either from KQ or ET).”
But the pilots are opposed to the redeployment since they say they had not applied for it.
“The term redeployment is understood to mean movement within the same organisation. Is ET, therefore, part of Kenya Airways? And if it is not, how does the issue of redeployment arise?” one of the affected pilots said.
By assuring those “redeployed” to ET that their terms will be the same as those they are enjoying at KQ and that they will retain their seniority status after the three-year period, is KQ telling them they have full managerial control at ET?
Mrs Murage’s letter clearly anticipated these questions and sought to redirect the coming storm. The letter said: “We acknowledge this redeployment may raise several questions which we are committed to answer to the best of our ability – please direct any related queries to Captain Paul Mwangi via e-mail or telephone.
As time is of the essence and ET is awaiting our response, we would like to kindly request you to adhere to the above given timeline and ensure our receipt of your application form by then.” Capt Mwangi, the airline’s director of flight operations is himself a senior captain with the B777 fleet. It is not known whether he is among those redeployed.
For fear of victimisation, pilots interviewed declined to be identified. They read sinister intentions in KQ’s unprecedented move.
To avoid paying them hefty severance dues, they say, management is presenting them with an impossible option which they will decline – as they have. Next will come the dismissals less the benefits.
Aware of the dire financial situation of the carrier, many pilots are resigned to leaving if only they could be let go in accordance with the terms of their collective bargaining agreement with the airline. The airline is still facing woes in spite of all the reported cash injections from the government.
On March 23, KQ 101 out of London Heathrow was delayed for two hours and was almost cancelled because money for fuel had not been paid up front, credit facilities there having been withdrawn.
Saturday Nation has seen a frantic email from KQ CEO Mbuvi Ngunze pleading with the supplier to top up the plane as he was making immediate arrangements for payment which he said may even have gone through by the time that mail was received.
The airliner, with a complement of 243 passengers, was released but the problem persists. Now KQ is paying cash for fuel in Lagos, Abuja and Dakar among other airports. This problem alone has the potential of grounding the carrier.
One former manager described the redeployment idea as crazy and told KQ to simply pay the pilots their terminal dues and leave them to fend for themselves.
It is understood that many pilots have applied to join Middle East airlines and some have already joined and are checked out.
The pilots feel KQ wants to send them to ET because it does not want them to join gulf airlines which have better packages.