The airline is part-owned by the government as well as Air France-KLM and is one of the biggest in Africa

Nairobi (AFP) - Kenya Airways pilots will end their days-long strike and return to work on Wednesday morning, their union said, after a court ordered staff to resume operations in a breakthrough for the beleaguered airline.

The protesting pilots, who make up 10 percent of the workforce, are pressing for the reinstatement of contributions to a provident fund and payment of all salaries stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The walkout has forced hundreds of flight cancellations and left thousands of passengers stranded since Saturday morning, exacerbating the woes facing the troubled national carrier and prompting the government to threaten the pilots with disciplinary action.

Hours after a Nairobi court on Tuesday ordered the pilots to return to work, the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) said its members would “resume duty” by 06:00 am (0300 GMT) on Wednesday – the deadline stipulated in the court order.

“KALPA members will do their best to restore normalcy to operations,” the union’s general secretary Murithi Nyagah said in a statement released late Tuesday, calling the travel disruptions “regrettable”.

KALPA launched the walkout at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in defiance of a court order issued last week against the strike, prompting judges to summon union representatives to appear in court on Tuesday.

Justice Anna Mwaure ordered KALPA members “to resume their duties as pilots by 6:00 am on 9th November 2022 unconditionally”.

Kenya Airways, which is part-owned by the government as well as Air France-KLM, is one of the biggest in Africa, connecting multiple countries to Europe and Asia.

But it has been running losses for years, despite the government pumping in millions of dollars to keep it afloat.

The court order was welcomed by the government and the airline’s management who vowed to intensify efforts to “recover the time, money and reputation lost”.

The walkout has forced hundreds of flight cancellations

Mwaure also ordered the airline’s management to allow the pilots “to perform their duties without harassing them or intimidating them and especially by not taking any disciplinary action against any of them”.

Transport Minister Kipchumba Murkomen urged the pilots and the airline’s management “to obey the court order”.

“We regret that the issues at hand were allowed to persist and escalate into a strike,” he said.

“In the past three days, this strike has disrupted travel plans for over 12,000 customers… forced the cancellation of over 300 flights, and affected 3,500 other employees who were not part of it,” he added.

In a statement released Tuesday evening, the airline’s CEO Allan Kilavuka said: “We commit to complying with the Court’s directions.”

The carrier had earlier said the strike had forced it to cancel most of its flights but Kilavuka vowed that the airline would “do everything possible to return to normalcy in the shortest time”.

- ‘Economic sabotage’ -

The dispute has added to the challenges facing Kenya’s recently elected government, with Murkomen on Sunday threatening the pilots with disciplinary action unless they returned to work.

The airline and the government have accused the union of engaging in “economic sabotage”, with Kenya Airways warning that the strike would lead to losses estimated at $2.5 million per day.

“Due to this unlawful action by KALPA, the customers of KQ both locally and globally have suffered and continue to suffer immeasurable inconvenience and losses,” Kenya Airways said in a statement Monday using the shorthand airline code.

The carrier had also announced that it was ending its recognition of the union and withdrawing from their collective bargaining deal, accusing KALPA of “exposing the airline to irreparable damage”.

The pilots in turn accused the airline’s management of making “no concessions” to end the stalemate.

The airline was founded in 1977 following the demise of East African Airways, and flies more than four million passengers to 42 destinations annually.

It has been operating in large part thanks to state bailouts following years of losses.