Q&A On Kenya Airways Crisis With MP Ronald Karauri

November 14, 2022

Former Kenya Airways pilot, pilots’ representative and current Kasarani MP Ronald Kararuri spoke about the recent pilot’s strike and the challenges facing the national carrier.

How did you handle a similar situation when you served as Kenya Airlines Pilots Association (KALPA) general secretary?

I never called for a strike. Some sort of industrial action, yes, but we never got to a point where we called for a full strike. When you see a full strike, it means the deadlock in their negotiations must have been severe.

Having been an insider once, what do you think cut?

They must have reached a point where negotiations ceased. Planes got grounded, meaning they were losing money every day. It was unfortunate to see the chief executive refuse to negotiate. That is not healthy for an airline. I think the CEO should always negotiate with his pilots.

But the CEO said KALPA officials refused to budge…

What happened was KALPA was trying to catch up and negotiate backwards. When something has been taken away from you, and you are trying to recover what was taken unilaterally, it is not a negotiation. When people take something from you and then force you into a negotiation to get back what you deserve in the first place, you are starting on the wrong footing.

The management’s view was that the pilots were being unreasonable. Is that correct?

Remember the people who have the most to lose if the airline gets grounded are the pilots because they hope to retire in that airline, but the CEO will leave at some point. It is in their best interests that Kenya Airways continues operating, so when they down tools, they should be taken seriously.

The pilots were asking for a reinstatement of certain perks and the firing of the Kenya Airways CEO. Were they justified?

There is no way employees can use industrial action to demand for management staff to be fired from a company. That is not a reason for an industrial action. They might have their opinion or advise on how they think the company should be run, but Industrial action is not the way to go. The people who should be demanding for change of management are company shareholders. Pilots were therefore out of order. It was a very unreasonable demand.

Were there other issues beneath the table?

You could say that. First, it was unfortunate that the government got involved in the negotiations. Government is just a shareholder. Kenya Airways is a private company. As a shareholder, the responsibility of running a company has been assigned to the board and the executive officer. For the CEO to drag the government in and say, “negotiate on my behalf” felt to me like someone trying to run away from the problem.

But doesn’t the government have a big stake in KQ?

They have, of course, but that is not the issue. The problem is when the CEO refuses to negotiate with his pilots because I suspect he knew the government would step in. I am not convinced that the pilots refuse to budge. Remember they were the ones risking jobs and it was in their best interest to have the planes back in the air.

Are you saying KALPA officials never had a sit down with the Kenya Airways management?

That’s exactly what they told me. They did sit down with the management of Kenya Airways, but once the strike started, that ended. They say they met officials from the ministries of Labour and Transport but the management of Kenya Airways refused to sit with them. That lack of goodwill, they said, is what led to the stalemate.

In your time and experience, what was your irreducible minimum when you were negotiating?

When I was in the union, one of the biggest issues we had then, and pilots were willing to strike for, was the employment of foreign pilots. Our reasoning was that we had enough pilots in Kenya and we argued that before you go to look for foreigners, you should employ Kenyan pilots first. Another thing that upset us is when they fired our senior pilots unilaterally. For me, these are some of the issues that can lead to a situation where if the other side is not willing to listen, pilots won’t bend.

Pilots are highly paid professionals. Do they really need a workers’ association?

KALPA is not only important in the bargaining for pay, but it plays a critical role in ensuring air safety. If you let an airline run without an association of pilots, you run the risk of airline executives and shareholders cutting corners where regulations are concerned in pursuit of profits.

Why really is KQ making losses?

Ask me another. A couple of years back, we sat with the then-CEO. We had planes doing the China route. They were always at full capacity. But when we come to Nairobi, we are told, the planes needed to be sold because they are not making money. So the question was, the plane is full, how is it making losses?

Then there was an argument that pilots are overpaid. Kenya Airway’s turnovers are very high, but they spend more; their costs are much higher. There is a time they let go of a lot of cabin crew to cut costs, but they continued to make losses. Thing is, they are not addressing the real issue.

Do pilots sit on the Kenya airways Board?

Of course not! I think it is a culture at Kenya Airways. I think they feel, “if we have a pilot on the Board, we are done!”

The common view is that KQ pilots earn insane amounts of cash so they shouldn’t be asking for more.

There is nothing wrong with paying pilots well. Besides, our pilots’ pay cannot compare to pilots in say Qatar who are paid twice as much, plus other benefits. Remember our pilots can fly planes anywhere in the world as long as they are rated on that particular equipment. If you are trying to run an airline business, you better have a budget to pay the pilots who are rated on that aircraft. If you complain about the pay, it’s clear indication you don’t know the business.

What kind of people in your view should sit on the KQ Board?

It is the duty of shareholders to appoint individuals with airline and managerial experience. People who are going to add value to that position, rather than people who are just going to sit on the Board.

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