(One of Kenya Airways brand new E190AR)
Within hours of Kenya Airways serving notice of intent about its future, when they signed a 26 aircraft deal with Embraer of Brazil, did other airlines express their fears in an uncharacteristically candid fashion in communications with this correspondent. Fly 540s Nixon Ooko, Director of Operations, was quoted in sections of the Kenyan media to have said: You cannot have an experienced pilot in less than five years and this raises the possibility of Kenya Airways hiring experienced pilots and retraining them to fly these new jets. Others, not officially going on record, nothing unusual in East Africa were more candid and accused KQ without however giving any particulars or details: They will be poaching our Captains and First Officers, that much is clear. If they get 26 new planes between now and 2015 or 2016, they cannot produce enough new pilots in their own academy and from those sent to South Africa to train. This leaves me to conclude that they will again recruit on the open market like they did before. I agree, that as a smaller airline we will find it difficult to retain our pilots, even so we believe our packages are superior and we are more flexible employers. KQ however will bait them with career prospects to move from single aisle narrow body to the larger wide bodied planes in the future, and that is the aspiration of many pilots to eventually captain a B777 or a B787. And there is another threat even KQ suffers from, that is the Gulf airlines constantly recruiting, with head hunters and through their offices when they spread word that there are jobs in these airlines as expatriates. Even experienced pilots flying light aircraft on the safari routes are now showing interest to move up and there will be a rat race to capture them, entice them. As a Kenyan I am happy to see KQ grow but to be honest, for our company this means nothing but more problems. And just remember that salary packages for pilots have doubled over the last couple of years already. This is becoming a big factor in our cost structure and can break our financial back if we cannot approach this sensibly.
Kenya Airways in the meantime let it be known through established channels that far from poaching staff and in particular pilots, the airline was committed to expand their in house training programmes and external courses for pilot aspirants, which will be sufficient to cater for the increase in aircraft number over the next few years. It was also suggested that Embraer will assist KQ, which is now the Brazilian manufacturers largest customer in Africa, with the training of pilots and the recruitment of Brazilian expatriate pilots has in fact not been ruled out by the sources this correspondent spoke with. Said one regular source from Embakasi on condition of anonymity: We invested in a flight simulator for the B737 and we are now getting a lot of Embraer aircraft, so we might invest in a simulator for those aircraft also. We are committed to training our staff and will continue to do so. Eventually we will have over 30 Embraer 170 and 190 aircraft flying so it makes sense to train our pilots at home. No other airline in Kenya has invested in training like we do, so they should not be too worried.
As recently explained in a series of articles over the East African aviation markets, this will undoubtedly play out over the coming months in an increasingly competitive environment, where the gloves will come off and only the financially strong and fit will survive.