Passengers endured long wait while airlines and businesses counted huge losses as a strike by aviation workers paralysed operations at Kenya’s main airports on Wednesday.
The Kenya Aviation Workers Union (Kawu) members were protesting against the proposed merger between the national carrier Kenya Airways and the airports regulator, which, if approved, will see KQ run the facility in a concession agreement with the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA).
Take-off flights were cancelled while no plane had landed at the JKIA as at 11am, with a RwandAir plane that was scheduled to pick up passengers leaving empty.
Most travellers milled around the airport waiting to know the fate of their flights, as the government called in Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops to man operations at the country’s main aerodrome.
KQ suffered the greatest loss with 24 of its flights affected and was still struggling to fly out stranded passengers in the evening.
JKIA handles an average of 13,000 passengers daily, with more than 8,000 of these passengers departing.
The country’s main aviation hub also handles an average of 230 flights daily, with close to 114 of them departing either for domestic, regional or international destinations.
“The financial impact created by this illegal action is substantial. We are calculating and will advise together with the airlines on the exact cost.
“Cancelled and rescheduled flights come with costs including refunds and hosting passengers, not just here but in other airports whose flights were to terminate in Nairobi. This will cause untold financial burden to airlines,” Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said.
KQ Managing Director Sebastian Mikosz said they were yet to fully calculate the financial costs to the airline, but in court papers filed Wednesday morning, the airline put the loss at Ksh300 million ($3m).
“The strike affected our morning operations, but we now expect things to slowly go back to normal as we strive to clear the backlog starting with the London and Dubai routes,” Mr Mikosz said in a statement in the evening.
Resumption of flights on the London route is critical to the airline due to stringent European Union Aviation regulations that would require KQ to compensate up to $600 per passenger were they to cancel the service routes for a period of more than 12 hours.
Within the continent, the carrier cancelled its Entebbe, Blantyre, Kigali and Dar es Salaam morning flights. Operations to Lagos, Accra, Abidjan and Dakar were also affected.
Inbound flights from Mumbai and Dubai were delayed by more than three hours, with passengers booked to fly out on these routes also affected.
“We had the first flight to Amsterdam at 12.30pm, followed by Mumbai and London. We also saw local flights to Kisumu and Mombasa take off,” Mr Macharia said.
Some Kawu officials, including secretary-general Moss Ndiema, were arrested and detained for taking part in the strike.
“We cannot allow a bunch of criminals to inconvenience hard working Kenyans going about their normal duties,” Mr Macharia had said.
The Amsterdam, Mumbai and London flights normally all depart between 8.45am and 9.30am. The strike not only affected KQ, but also other carriers that operate from JKIA.
More than 20 foreign airlines operate out of JKIA, including RwandAir, KLM, Swiss Air, Air France, KQ, Qatar, Turkish Airlines, Air Mauritius, British Airways, Emirates, South African Airways, Air Saudi and Ethiopian Airlines.
Mr Macharia said they managed to replace more than 30 KAA screeners who had downed their tools with those from KQ and the Kenya Air Force, which allowed them to start processing passengers for departures.
Etihad, Ethiopian, Emirates, RwandAir were some of the flights that saw immediate cancellation in their morning schedules sending their operations into crisis mode.
By evening, the airline had reopened its routes with flights to Entebbe, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Dubai, London, Harare and other regional airlines, including South African Airline that operates two scheduled flights to Johannesburg, and Ethiopian Airlines, flights taking off and landing in the evening, as operations started normalising.