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Pilot strike disrupts Kenya Airways flights

A strike by Kenya Airways pilots forced nearly two dozen flight cancellations on Saturday, affecting thousands of passengers, the beleaguered national carrier 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 Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) said no Kenya Airways flight flown by its members had departed Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from 6:00 am (0300 GMT) onwards on Saturday.

The pilots announced the strike in defiance of a court order against industrial action and gave no indication of how long it will last.

The airline's managing director and CEO, Allan Kilavuka, said 23 flights had been cancelled as of 11:00 am due to "the unlawful strike".

He urged the protesting pilots, who make up 10 percent of the workforce, to return to work by 10:30 am on Sunday.

"Failure to do so will lead to immediate disciplinary action," he warned.

Kenya's newly appointed Transport Minister Kipchumba Murkomen told reporters that the strike was unwarranted and "akin to economic sabotage".

- 'Negotiate in good faith' -

He said around 10,000 passengers had been affected by the strike.

"I am not saying their concerns are not valid," he said, appealing to the "goodwill of the pilots to terminate" what he described as drastic action.

Frustrated passengers described huge queues at the airport, with many only learning their flights were cancelled when they arrived to check in.

"We have been told nothing," US tourist Jill Lee told AFP as she waited in line after her flight to Tanzania's financial capital Dar es Salaam was cancelled at the last minute.

The 65-year-old was booked to go on safari 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."

On Saturday, KALPA blamed "the hardline stance adopted by" the airline's management for throwing thousands of travellers' plans into disarray.

It urged them to "come to the table and negotiate in good faith, if they truly sympathise with the plight of Kenya Airways passengers."

- Injunction -

The pilots are pressing for the reinstatement of contributions to a provident fund and payment of all salaries stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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 jeopardise 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.

In August, the airline reported a $81.5 million half-year loss citing high fuel costs, despite the Kenyan government injecting some $520 million to keep it afloat.

On Wednesday, the airline's management said it was on a path to recovery, flying at least 250,000 passengers each month, and aiming to cut its overall operating costs by 10 percent before the end of next year.

amu/jm