Oneworld partners hold hands in time of operational adversity

It seems completely logical if one airline has had to park many of its short-haul aircraft for the short-term due to the forced suspension of flights into four neighbouring nations and another needs an immediate capacity uplift to prepare for an impending staff walkout, then moving those resources seems sensible. But, in a regulatory-enriched sector such as aviation such a simple and obvious task is not always easy. Qatar Airways and British Airways (BA), both members of the oneworld alliance, appear to be working on just this solution to overcome their current operational issues.

It has emerged this week in official licence records that BA has submitted an application to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to wet lease nine A320 family aircraft to cover its operations during next month’s planned strike by Mixed Fleet crew. European airlines are only able to source equipment from outside the continent in special circumstances.

While the CAA record does not actually name the Gulf carrier but simply that these aircraft are “Qatar registered”, the airline is the sole, it quite clear they will be sourced from Qatar Airways. The airline currently has an excess capacity after being forced to suspend flights between its Doha hub and destinations in Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as part of growing tensions across the Persian Gulf.

BA says in its application that it seeking to wet lease nine A320s or A321s “between July 1 and 16, 2017, and for additional periods, yet to be defined, for a maximum of two months”. It adds the application has been made on the grounds that the lease “is justified on the basis of exceptional needs” to enable it to continue passenger operations in light of “planned operational disruption by its Mixed Fleet cabin crew”.

Members of the Unite union working for BA Mixed Fleet are set to strike from 00:01 Saturday July 1, 2017 to 23:59 Sunday July 16, 2017, amid accusations that the airline was operating a “blacklist by sanctioning cabin crew who took strike action in a long running pay dispute”. The union, which is represents over 1,400 sanctioned airline staff, says BA’s proposed remedy may not meet with aviation law and is calling on the CAA to turn down an application.

Writing to the CAA, Unite warned that the lease could be in breach of aviation law, if British Airways was unable to demonstrate that an equivalent level of safety standards would be applied to the aircraft.

Pointing to Qatar’s inferior flight duty time limitations and rest requirements, Unite warned that unless these had been ‘transitioned’ to meet EU requirements and a standardisation visit had taken place by the European Aviation Safety Agency, the ‘wet lease’ would not be compliant.

Under European Union law, British Airways must demonstrate to the CAA that ‘all safety standards equivalent to those imposed by the community or national laws are met.’ As part of this a thorough examination of all applicable records, training and maintenance must be sought and provided for aircraft, engineers, pilots and cabin crew.

“The Civil Aviation Authority must refuse British Airways’ application to ‘wet lease’ aircraft from outside the European Union as it is doubtful the airline can demonstrate it is compliant with aviation law covering safety,” says Unite national officer Oliver Richardson.

Previous strike action by British Airways’ mixed fleet cabin crew led to the airline wet leasing aircraft from European compliant airlines, such as the UK’s Titan Airways and Thomson Airways and sister carrier Vueling. The subject of leasing capacity from partner carriers is not a new phenomenon for Qatar Airways which is currently dry leasing four A350-900s of South American carrier LATAM Airlines to overcome delivery issues with its new long-haul equipment and continue its ambitious network expansion strategy. These aircraft are currently deployed on its routes linking Doha to Madrid and Munich.

The A350s are configured in a denser cabin layout than Qatar Airways’ own examples providing a 19.8% capacity increase versus its own equipment: 339 passengers (30 Business Class and 309 Economy seats) versus its own 283 passengers (36 Business Class and 247 Economy seats). If the BA deal for the short-haul equipment is approved there may be a similar capacity and offering difference as some of Qatar Airways’ A320s and A321s are configured with separate business class cabins.