By Duncan Miriri
NAIROBI (Reuters) -Kenya Airways PLC's pilots union will give its final decision later tonight on whether to begin a strike on Saturday after the government urged them to it call off, the transport minister said on Friday.
The walkout, which is due to start at 6.00 am local time (0300 GMT), will affect thousands of business and leisure travellers at one of the most important aviation hubs in the continent.
The pilots union has said it would call a strike over a dispute on pensions contributions and settlement of deferred pay for its members after a 14-day notice had passed without the airline's management addressing their grievances.
The airline described the planned strike as unlawful and warned that it could jeopardise its recovery from the pandemic, and the airline could at a minimum lose 300 million shillings ($2.5 million) a day.
In last-minute talks to avert a strike, Transport minister Kipchumba Murkomen said the government had issued a plea to the pilots union not to go ahead with the industrial action, adding that disruptions at the airline had already started.
He also said he was hopeful the pilots would obey a court order invalidating the strike.
"I’m very optimistic that in the next two hours, the pilots will make the right decision," he said of the decision by the pilots expected at 9pm local time (1800 GMT).
"They will not throw away the baby with the bath water."
The airline - which is trying to recover from a downturn in earnings during the pandemic - said the action could also affect cargo freight and also cause huge losses to farmers whose perishable goods are due for export.
"The intended unlawful industrial action negates the strides KQ (Kenya Airways) has made this year in improving its financial position following the COVID pandemic that affected the economy," the airline said in a statement.
The Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA) — a union that represents more than 400 pilots at the carrier — has said it is at liberty to call a strike after its strike notice expired.
"We are therefore at liberty to exercise our right to withdraw our labour forthwith," Murithi Nyagah, the general secretary of KALPA, said in a statement.
($1 = 121.4000 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Writing by James Macharia Chege and George Obulutsa; editing by Uttaresh.V and Louise Heavens)