KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait Airways flights were disrupted yesterday as the government-run airline's Kuwaiti staff went on strike to demand better salaries and benefits.
The strike, which lasted from 8am to about 4pm local time, left hundreds of passengers stranded in Kuwait City and Cairo.
Marzouk Al Sharifi, the vice chairman of the Kuwait Airways Corporation (KAC) union, said the strike was called off because the minister of communications, Salem Al Uthayna, "agreed to the pay rise of 30 per cent and all of our requests" at an emergency meeting.
The union had threatened to strike every day until their demands were met. Mr Al Sharifi said some of the demands - including the salary increases - would have to be approved by the Civil Service Commission.
"This is exactly what happened to Kuwait Oil Company: we've done exactly the same thing," he said.
The protest came at a time when dozens of strikes are blighting Kuwait's public sector institutions. The employees were inspired by the oil sector workers' successful attempt to wrench pay rises out of the government in September.
The sheer scale of the protests will make it hard for the government, which already spends a huge portion of the budget on wages, to meet all of the striking employees' demands.
Flights to Jeddah, Doha, Dubai and Cairo had been cancelled earlier in the day and "up to 15 or 16" could have been disrupted had the government not intervened, Mr Al Sharifi claimed.
In Egypt, passengers were stranded at Cairo International Airport after KAC staff refused to work, local press reported.
About 2,000 of the KAC's 5,000 employees are Kuwaiti, leading critics to argue that the airline - with just 17 aircraft - is considerably overstaffed. The carrier has been running at a loss for several years.
In addition to salary increases of 30 per cent, the union is demanding changes to the systems for calculating overtime, holidays and promotions.
"We agree with everything but they want it immediately and we don't have the authority, it has to go through the proper channels," said Adel Bourisly, KAC's director of PR and media, before the strike was called off at 4pm.
Mr Bourisly said most of the flights were not cancelled, but "combined" with flights to the same destination later in the day or into two-stop trips. He said: "This is our contingency plan."
The airline's "priorities" are Kuwaitis undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage and those seeking medical treatment overseas, he said. KAC leased an aeroplane from Jazeera Airways - the budget Kuwaiti carrier - to transport pilgrims on two cancelled flights to Jeddah.
KAC has been undergoing a prolonged privatisation that has left the government unwilling to pump money into the carrier and airline officials unable to raise funds to invest in its ageing fleet.
Mr Al Sharifi said the uncertainty surrounding the future of the airline was hurting staff morale because "nobody knows where Kuwait Airways is going".
The government and the airline's administration "need to either continue with this, or stop it", he said.