When news broke yesterday morning of a plan by British Airways to lease nine Qatar Airways aircraft, it seemed like a master stroke by the two airlines. The plan was confirmed by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority who said the agency had received an application from British Airways to wet-lease nine Qatari registered Airbus A320 aircraft.
If approved by the regulator, BA would be allowed to use the aircraft and crew to operate their flights throughout July. Importantly, the agreement covers a two-week Cabin Crew strike that has been called by the British Airways staff union, Unite. The strike is scheduled to start on Saturday 01st July and end on Sunday 16th July.
Although not explicitly mentioned in BA’s application or the CAA’s press release, it’s widely believed that the wet-lease agreement is with Qatar Airways. As the only commercial airline in Qatar with nine Airbus A320 aircraft going spare, it’s unlikely to be any other airline providing the aircraft to BA.
On the face of it, this seems like a win-win plan for the two airlines. For Qatar Airways, wet-leasing the aircraft will be a great use of spare aircraft and crew that would otherwise not be making any money. Qatar Airways has been forced to ground a chunk of its aircraft fleet as a result of the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and a bloc of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
Deal Estimated to Cost British Airways £5,000 Per Hour
The Unite union has estimated the cost to British Airways of renting the aircraft and crew will set the airline back in the region of £5,000 (USD $6,398) per hour. It’s certainly no long term solution for Qatar Airways but with the airline’s operation curtailed in important markets, this seems like an innovative way to utilise their aircraft.
Meanwhile, British Airways is hoping the agreement will finally break a long-running dispute the airline has had with a group of Cabin Crew. Staff belonging to the Mixed Fleet branch of Cabin Crew have accused British Airways of paying them ‘poverty pay’. The Union had called seven strikes since last December and eventually won a concession from management.
But while British Airways was willing to give Cabin Crew a modest pay increase, they didn’t want to make the union’s action a blueprint for future staff negotiations. The airline has long tried to rough out staff disputes rather than concede or mediate. Giving in to the Union’s demand for a pay rise was already a massive concession for British Airways.
No Rules Against ‘Strike Breaking’
They did, however, have a plan to make clear who was the boss. The small print of the deal saw any Cabin Crew who took part in the strikes barred from enjoying staff travel benefits for 12-months. The deal was quickly rejected by both the union and staff. Yet British Airways is unwilling to give any further concessions – the airline has chosen instead to dig its heels in.
This isn’t an unusual move for BA. Remember, it took seven proposed strikes before the airline even offered a new pay deal. But the Mixed Fleet branch of Cabin Crew was only introduced by British Airways to break a previous staff strike in 2010. During that period of disruption, BA even trained office staff and volunteers to take on the Cabin Crew role.
Of course, there isn’t anything stopping British Airways doing this. Unlike in some other European countries, the UK has no rules against ‘strike breaking’. In previous Mixed Fleet strikes, BA wet-leased aircraft from smaller charter airlines including leisure airline, Thomson Airways. So the plan to lease Qatari aircraft isn’t an entirely alien concept.
1,400 Cabin Crew Could Strike for Two Weeks Starting 01st July
But there is concern the plan will create more headaches than it solves. The Unite union has reacted angrily to the proposal and called on the CAA to turn down the application. The union said it was making the appeal because it doubted British Airways could prove the agreement was “compliant with aviation law covering safety.”
In a strongly worded statement, a spokesperson for the union said: “It is an entirely avoidable waste of resources on behalf of British Airways and would not have happened if the bosses had accepted our compromise offer on the outstanding issue of sanctions.”
The statement continued: “Instead, British Airways faces the disruption of a two-week strike and legal action on behalf of over 1,400 mixed fleet cabin crew over the way it targeted striking members of cabin crew. We would urge British Airways’ bosses to come to their senses and think again.”
Qatar Airways On Board Product Significantly Better Than BA’s
There is also the suggestion that a Europan airline can only lease aircraft from a foreign company under “exceptional circumstances, such as a lack of adequate aircraft on the Community market.” So while the deal might make commercial sense for both BA and Qatar Airways (considering that Qatar owns a 20% stake in BA’s parent company), it might not get past EU laws.
But if British Airways does have its application approved, the biggest problem facing the airline could be the passenger experience. And that’s not because passengers will be forced to endure a worse experience. Instead, the Qatar Airways aircraft and onboard service will likely confirm passengers perceptions that BA has gone downmarket.
Here’s what’s available on a Qatar Airways A320:
- Seat pitch: 31 inches in Economy
- Seat width: 18 inches in Economy
- In seat power and USB ports at every seat
- An 8.9 inch personal TV at every seat in Economy
Additionally, Qatar Airways has redesigned its Business Class cabin in a 2-2 configuration with fully flat seats, 21-inch seat width and a 15 inch personal TV. Even on older aircraft, the airline offers comfortable recliner seats in a 2-2 configuration.
British Airways Offers Just 30 Inch Seat Pitch in Business Class
In contrast, British Airways offers just 30 inches of seat pitch in both Business and Economy on its A320 fleet – and plans to reduce that to 29 inches. Business Class is in a 3-3 configuration with just 17 inches of seat width and the middle seat blocked out. There’s no at-seat power, no personal TV screens and no wi-fi or entertainment streaming service.
And that’s before you discuss onboard service – British Airways recently introduced an expensive ‘buy on board’ tie up with Marks & Spencer. Qatar Airways, however, offers complimentary meals and drinks to all passengers, even on their shortest flights. Whether Qatar Airways would continue to do this on BA operated flights remains to be seen.
Focus on Qatar’s Human Rights Record – Treatment of Female Staff
Then there’s another issue that Unite is keen to focus attention on – the alleged treatment of female Cabin Crew at Qatar Airways. The union said the Qatari airline has been “found to have breached international standards on labour and human rights by telling female cabin crew they would be sacked if they became pregnant.” It’s a story we’ve also covered on this blog and if true, it’s a truly shameful way to treat staff.
It all adds up to what could be a massive own goal for British Airways – worsening industrial relations, shining a light on their own poor onboard product and allowing an airline with a dubious human rights record to operate in the UK. Worse still could be the highlighting of their links with a country who (if true) have funded international terrorist groups.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.