Business

Inside the KQ flight delays, cancellations sinkhole

Inside the KQ flight delays, cancellations sinkhole
  • Analysis shows that 182 of the cancelled flights were caused by crew shortage occasioned by pilots and crew failing to turn up for work.
  • FlightStats ranks KQ at position seven, with the worst average delay of 61.1 per cent out of the 13 airlines polled.

Kenya Airways has cancelled more than 52 flights in the first 18 days of August and delayed 40 per cent of its successful trips this year at an astronomical cost to the taxpayer.

According to a confidential memo, which opens a window into what ails the loss-making carrier, frequent cancellations load the airlines with huge accommodation costs that stood at Sh118 million in the last seven months of 2019.

The troubled airline, known by its international code KQ, posted a Sh7.55 billion net loss for the year ending December 2018, as higher costs offset a jump in revenue.

The company’s rising revenue hit Sh114.18 billion, largely driven by passenger bookings.

In the last two months, the airline has faced a barrage of complaints from customers over frequent cancellations and flight delays. This has seen the government come in seeking an explanation from the management.

STAFF SHORTAGE

Sources say the trigger of the hard questions that have put the top management officials on the spot was a flight cancellation involving a member of the First Family in Paris early this month.

A confidential internal analysis of the airline’s 2019 on-time performance (OTP) for this year, shows that 182 of the cancelled flights were caused by crew shortage occasioned by pilots and crew failing to turn up for work.

Under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) now in place, pilots can be absent from work for up to 48 hours without providing any medical evidence, something sources say is now being misused, leading to the increasing cases of crew shortage-driven flight cancellations.

“During flight delay or cancellation, Kenya Airways is expected to provide essential services such as accommodation, meals, and ground transportation as the situation requires. With an increasing number of these incidents, the costs of hotel accommodation and meals have been above budget by 250 per cent,” the memo says.

KEY CHALLENGES

The KQ Chief Executive Officer Sebastian Mikosz told staff on Thursday in an internal newsletter that since the beginning of summer schedule, “our OTP (on-time performance) performance has deteriorated significantly due to crew constraints”.

The total number of guests who have been provided with accommodation on account of delays stood at 19,345 for the seven months, or an average of 2,764 per month, haemorrhaging a carrier that has been struggling to stay afloat for many years.

The state of affairs has triggered a blame game between the airline management and unionisable staff. It is now emerging that there is a silent go-slow among the staff, including pilots.

The airline’s average on time performance at 15 minutes in the seven months of this year, stood at 77 per cent, having dropped from 82 per cent over similar period last year.

“The main factors that have affected OTP include technical issues, crew constraint, ATC (air traffic congestion) in European destinations and radar failure in Nairobi,” Mr Mikosz says in the Thursday newsletter.

GLOBAL RANKING

Pilots’ unavailability is becoming a sticking issue, with insiders saying that the CBA it signed with the Kenya Airlines Pilots Association (Kalpa) is biting hard.

The agreement reached two years ago after a protracted strike allows the airline to seek only Embraer-rated pilots, leaving the other fleet with a shortfall.

The data shows that out of the airline’s 35,035 successful departures this year, only 22,426 (or 60 per cent) were on time, with 2,814 having been delayed by more than an hour. More than 9,600 departures suffered delays of up to one hour.

FlightStats, a global flight tracking service, ranks KQ at position seven, with the worst average delay of 61.1 per cent out of the 13 airlines polled.

WAY FORWARD

Contacted, KQ defended its position, saying that pilots were to blame for the rise in the flight disruptions under the crew shortage reasons, mostly because of the “restrictive CBA the airline has with pilots”.

But Kalpa CEO Captain Muriithi Nyaga said it is inaccurate to place the blame on pilots.

“Since last year, we have been seeking to recruit contract pilots across the fleet (those trained and authorised to fly the different models (Boeing, Embraers) like all other airlines do.

"However, due to the very restrictions by pilots, we are only allowed to recruit pilots on the Embraer fleet. You will appreciate that in this part of the world, Embraer is a relatively new aircraft, so there are very few trained pilots capable of flying this type of aircraft,” KQ’s head of corporate affairs Dennis Kashero said in a response to our email enquiries.

STATE SUPPORT

The Nation has learnt that a board committee meeting that took place on Thursday last week is expected to brief Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia on the steps the airline is taking to address the problem.

“It is true that they met last week and I am awaiting their report. At the same time, we have given the management full support as they renegotiate the CBA with the pilots.

"Our position is clear, that we will not allow any sabotage of such a national asset from any quarters as we try to seek the best for the airline,” Mr Macharia said on Sunday.