Strike over Kenya Airways-KAA merger halts operations at NBO

Today, the Kenya Aviation Workers Union (KAWU) went on strike at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in objection to the proposed merger between Kenya Airways (KQ) and the agency that manages all the country’s airports, Kenya Airport Authority (KAA). The strike exacerbates business challenges for local carriers who recently lost a large amount of peak flower season cargo to Ethiopian Airways.

KAWU’s strike at NBO began at midnight local time, paralyzing airport operations and grounding flights. The union proceeded with the strike despite a ruling issued by the Kenyan Employment and Labor Relations Court suspending KAWU’s strike on March 5. In response to the strike, the government dispatched paramilitary riot police to the airport, armed with batons and tear gas, according to BBC. Several passengers, KQ employees and strikers needed medical treatment onsite after inhaling tear gas. KAWU secretary general, Moses Ndiema, five other union officials and four members were arrested at the airport and taken to court to face unspecified charges, according to Reuters.

The union organized the strike in protest against KQ’s merger plans that include a stipulation that the carrier will form a special purpose vehicle (SPV) at NBO to manage, operate and develop the airport for a period of 30 years. The union said this would result in a loss of revenue and jobs and called for removal of KAA and KQ executives. It also announced that its members would strike, should their demands against the merger not be met.

During the strike, 24 of KQ’s flights were delayed and two diverted.

KAA advised all customers to get in touch with their respective airlines regarding the status of their flights. KQ advised customers on flights after 11 a.m. local time to not come to the airport until further notice. The carrier also tweeted updates to customers with flights at the airport throughout the event and issued a statement condemning the strike as “illegal.”

Thirteen other cargo carriers – including Air France Cargo, Astral Aviation, Cargolux, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Saudia Cargo, Singapore Airlines Cargo and Turkish Cargo – operate at NBO, but have not released any statements or tweets related to the incident. Flights schedules resumed normalcy around 4:30 p.m., but the overall impact to cargo operations is not yet clear.

Tensions persist as members of parliament remain divided on the issue, according to local Kenyan news outlet, The Star. Some members of parliament took the side of National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale, who called the event a “national security threat” and called for the firing of those involved in the strike. Other members, like parliament member representing Kenya’s Rarieda constituency, Otiende Amollo, said that the suspicions against the merger that generated the strike deserve to be investigated and that an ad-hoc committee should be formed to examine the matter.

The merger is intended to help KQ turn around its deficit and gain revenue by giving the carrier control over all the staff and operations of the KAA, which will allow the carrier to expand its range of services to include ground handling, maintenance, catering, warehousing and cargo. Critics in government have likened the proposal to a debt recovery plan and condemned it, saying that a loss-making private entity cannot be allowed to take over a public entity that is making profit.

KQ has been struggling to strengthen its operations for some time against its European and Middle-East competitors, who dominate the market.

Earlier this year, the carrier lost market share of flowers during their peak export season to Ethiopian Airlines, which obtained approval from Kenya’s Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) for a permit allowing the carrier to operate 15 ad-hoc flights to Liège (LGG) out of NBO from Jan. 23 to Feb. 8 this year, according to Daily Nation. Despite KQ’s objections, KCAA said it granted the traffic rights to Ethiopian because the local operator had no capacity to meet the demand for flowers.

The carrier faces further challenges due to African countries’ slow adoption of open skies policies because governments seek to protect their airlines from competition. For example, Ethiopia currently does not allow KQ and other Kenyan freight carriers to operate the NBO to Addis Ababa Airport (ADD) route. Kenyan government officials and carriers said there should be a spirit of reciprocity between the countries in terms of operations, which is currently lacking.