It’s an unnerving feeling. You book a ticket with an airline you know and trust and then while boarding the aircraft you notice it’s not the same brand you booked. In fact, the aircraft has no branding at all. And no one says anything, until a muffled message over the intercom confirms your fears: you’re being flown by an airline you’ve never heard of “on behalf” of the airline you booked with.
The use of so-called wet-leasing has become common in Germany over the past few months as the bun fight over the demise of Air Berlin, Germany’s second-largest airline, continues. It collapsed in August, abruptly grounding 140 planes and causing a shortage of some 60,000 seats a day on domestic and regional flights from its hubs in Berlin and Düsseldorf.
After much controversy and several cartel rulings, Lufthansa and British low-cost carrier Easyjet swooped in to buy most of the planes and take-off and landing slots. But while both want to get them in the air as soon as possible to start earning, it’s taking time to incorporate them into their fleets. Crews have to be retrained, planes refitted and re-registered, confronting firms with serious capacity shortages as they head into summer, the busiest time of the year.
Imagine you booked a five-star hotel and find out when you get there that it’s turned into a four-star hotel. Stefanie Winiarz, passenger rights group EUclaim
The solution? Wet-lease someone else’s planes. The deals involve renting an aircraft from another airline or a wet-lease specialist (which usually come unbranded) along with their crews and maintenance operations. So an Easyjet flight from Berlin may be operated by obscure carriers such as Latvia’s Smartlynx or WDL Aviation of Cologne.
Eurowings, the budget unit of Lufthansa that inherited most of Air Berlin’s planes, has borrowed jets and crews from Czech Airlines. And holiday airline Tuifly, which also managed to get a slice of the bankruptcy action, is using planes from Laudamotion, which in turn rents them from Irish budget airline Ryanair.
The deals raise several issues, not least over safety and cost. Passengers don’t like it. “There are a lot of complaints from passengers,” said Stefanie Winiarz, of passenger rights group EUclaim. “And that’s understandable. Imagine you booked a five-star hotel and find out when you get there that it’s turned into a four-star hotel.”
The brand of an airline is important because it conveys a sense of safety. So passengers booking with a big brand find it disconcerting to board a Lithuanian Avion Express plane when they go on holiday.
Bickering over who is responsible for delays has compounded the problem. EU passengers are often entitled to compensation for lengthy delays even on short flights but there have been many cases of the ticket-selling airline and the leasing airline blaming each other. The Federal Court of Justice, Germany’s highest court, settled the matter last month, ruling that the airline that sold the ticket has to pay compensation.
The airlines insist that they only opt for safe and trustworthy partners. “We ruled out several wet lease providers because they did not meet our standards,” said Johan Lundgren, CEO of Easyjet. Thorsten Dirks, Lufthansa board member in charge of Eurowings, said the airline was “intensifying customer communications” to explain why its passengers had to travel with other airlines.
Lufthansa has warned that the alternative to wet-leasing would be worse: grounded planes and passengers unable to reach their destinations.
Passengers may have to get used to it. While the airlines are keen to end the costly contracts as soon as possible, there’s unlikely to be any change until the fall. Mr. Dirks said the situation at Eurowings will improve by the end of October, while Easyjet expects to be fully up and running by November.
“I would be lying if I said the situation is ideal,” said Mr. Lundgren. Many of his passengers would agree.