And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free – John 8:32
The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) has its genesis in the 1978 recognition agreement between it and Kenya Airways (KQ). This agreement paved the way for the recognition of KALPA as a union to represent KQ pilots and others.
Information from the association’s website sets out its broad mandate. It says, “KALPA works towards ensuring good working conditions for its members, focuses on flight safety and acts as a representative voice for professional pilots in Kenya.”
Despite KALPA’s existence from the nascent stages of KQ’s formation, the association only registered its first Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) nine years later in 1987. Perhaps this is explicable by the fact that KQ was initially a government entity with terms and conditions of service in tandem with those of other government agencies at the time. Captain Gwakweli Warrakah was instrumental in the improvement of pilot welfare through CBA increments. Currently, KQ pilot remuneration is at par with industry standards.
The last CBA signed by KALPA and KQ in 2017 resulted in a 17 per cent increase of average salaries for both Captains and First Officers. This was despite the fact that KQ was by then facing challenges and was undergoing financial restructuring. This CBA has been accused of giving KALPA members inordinately high privileges and at the same time, shielding them from reaching their peak in terms of productivity.
According to a KQ internal report, a Captain earns on average 11 times more than the average employee in other high-salary sectors and 29 times more than the private sector average.
KQ cockpit and cabin crew earn on average higher gross salaries than employees holding similar positions at competing airlines. One would therefore expect KQ pilot productivity to be higher than the competition yet the same report shows it to be significantly lower than industry standards and regional competing airlines pilots.
There are clauses in the CBA that are carryovers from the halcyon days of KQ’s beginning when productivity was subordinate to network reach; when profitability was sacrificed at the altar of national pride in a carrier whose ownership was separate from other member States of the old East African Community.
These clauses are not business enablers. An examination of the chokehold that they exert on KQ is imperative in determining a way forward. A copy of the 2017 CBA, which is a public document obtained from the Labour court, is revelatory. It shows clauses that lead to diminished pilot productivity.
Clause 19 (C) allows pilots to call in sick and to be absent from duty for up to 48 hours without a medical certificate signed by a registered practitioner. Whilst the intentions are no doubt noble, the clause has been abused with the prevalence of sick-offs notably increasing around the weekends and around festivities. The clause was also used to cover pilots who went on an unprotected strike in 2016 with a sizable number calling in sick.
Schedule 7 of the CBA provides for pilot post-flight days off that are counterintuitive. Whereas other countries define their rest periods in terms of hours, KALPA pilots have theirs in terms of days. This has the net effect of reducing the availability of pilots.
In many instances, KQ pilots on medium and long-haul flights may have cumulatively up to 14 days off work in a month This renders them unavailable for duty for nearly half a month. Currently, pilots are on average only 60 percent as productive when compared to the industry average of 72 hours a month. A change in this policy has the potential of increasing pilot productivity by up to 20 per cent.
However, not all low productivity issues are occasioned by the CBA. Some are grounded in Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) regulations that prescribe a local night policy that assigns mandatory rest for pilots between 10 pm and 8 am. Should a pilot land at their destination after 10 pm, the local night is counted from 10 pm of the next day.
This rigid policy implementation costs KQ approximately $2 million yearly in hotel costs in addition to the loss in productivity. A revision of this policy would allow for faster turnaround of the crew and enhance productivity.
Further, it is an archaic KCAA rule that is not in tandem with International Civil Aviation Organization’s best practice. In fact, no other country in the world implements this policy. A change of regulation at KCAA can only be effected after stakeholder engagement.
Then there is the Seniority and Promotions Policy as set out in Schedule 6 of the CBA. This determines the promotion of pilots from the smallest aircraft in weight to the largest in weight. Pilots initially start as First Officers in the smallest plane in the fleet, which is the Embraer.
Thereafter, they move as First Officer in the 737s before ending up in the 787s with the same designation. The next stage sees them move back to the Embraer as Captain, then upwards following the same trajectory as Captains of the 737s and 787s. This is a complex process that takes years.
Related to this, on average, 10 per cent of KQ pilots are usually in training and therefore grounded at any given time. Consequently, pilots are in training for an average of 4 to 6 months every couple of years.
A KQ pilot will be in training 6 times: as First Officer in three fleets and as Captain in three fleets. These pilots are therefore dormant and unproductive. In larger airlines, pilots go through 2 pieces of training as they remain in one specialized fleet for most of their flying years.
Typically, CBAs are effective for a specified duration stated in the agreement. This is usually between two to five years depending on the jurisdiction they are registered in. CBAs are different from regular contracts in the sense that the obligations of the parties involved do not come to an end on the expiration of the CBA. Rather, they continue to be binding until the next CBA is signed and registered.
For the longest, the KALPA CBA has been negotiated every two years. This poses great challenges to productivity when union heads who happen to be active pilots engage in drawn-out negotiations with the KQ management team.
Some of these talks have been known to last many weeks thus compromising pilots’ flying hours. A proposal to lengthen the duration of a CBA has been mooted with suggestions of a five-year interval that allows sufficient time for the ratification of agreements without undue compromise to productivity.
The final article in this series examines the issue of costs and the options available to the Government of Kenya, the KQ board and the management team as they plot a course through the turbulence.