Kenya Airways flights were disrupted Saturday as a strike by its pilots demanding better working conditions grounded over a dozen planes, affecting thousands of passengers, the country's transport minister said.
The airline, part-owned by the government and Air France-KLM, is one of the biggest in Africa, connecting multiple countries to Europe and Asia, but it is facing turbulent times, including years of losses.
The Kenya Airlines Pilots Association (KALPA) said that no Kenya Airways flight flown by its members had departed Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport starting from 6:00 am (0300 GMT) on Saturday. "The strike is fully in force," KALPA union secretary general Murithi Nyagah said in a statement released on Saturday.
The pilots announced the strike in defiance of a court order against the industrial action and have given no indication of how long it will last. Kenya's newly appointed Transport Minister Kipchumba Murkomen told reporters at the airport on Saturday that the strike was unwarranted and "akin to economic sabotage".
He said around 10,000 passengers had been affected by the strike, which had led to the grounding of 15 planes. "I am not saying their concerns are not valid," he said, but added that their actions were drastic as he appealed to the "goodwill of the pilots to terminate the strike."
Frustrated passengers described huge queues at the airport, with many travelers only learning about their canceled flights when they showed up to check-in. "We have been told nothing," American tourist Jill Lee told AFP as she waited in line to figure out her next course of action after her flight to Dar es Salaam was canceled at the last minute.
The 65-year-old had booked a safari in Tanzania but said she had no idea where she would spend the night after her connecting flight from Nairobi was cancelled.
"Many people here have nowhere to go. It's pretty horrible." - 'Soften its stance' - Kenya Airways on Saturday reported high call volumes at its service centre due to the "ongoing unlawful industrial action", urging customers to only contact the airline if they were traveling in the next 48 hours.
The pilots, who have had a particularly fraught relationship with management, are pressing for the reinstatement of contributions to a provident fund. They also want back payment of all salaries stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic. KALPA representatives said Friday that a series of meetings with airline management had failed to resolve grievances. "Kenya Airways management's actions have left us with no other option," Nyagah said, adding that a 14-day notice on the industrial action had ended without a solution.
"We had hoped that the management of the airline would soften its stance and engage in negotiation on the issues raised." On Monday, the airline won a court injunction stopping the strike, but an official at KALPA, which has 400 members, told AFP the pilots "were acting within the provisions of the law" and that they were yet to be served with a court order.
The carrier warned earlier this week that the strike would jeopardize its recovery, estimating losses at $2.5 million per day if the pilots went ahead with their plans. The airline was founded in 1977 following the demise of East African Airways and flies more than four million passengers to 42 destinations annually. But its slogan "The Pride of Africa" rings hollow as it operates thanks to state bailouts following years of losses.
Like other carriers around the world, Kenya Airways saw its revenue nosedive after the pandemic grounded planes worldwide because of stringent travel restrictions, devastating the aerospace and tourism industries.