The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has pledged to crack down on the regulation of British airlines leasing planes from overseas rivals, because of “potentially serious” consequences for passenger safety.
Major airlines typically use this “wet-leasing” arrangement either to save the expense of buying aircraft, which can cost hundreds of millions per plane, or to meet short-term spikes in demand, such as the school summer holidays. This type of deal hit the headlines last year when the budget airline Monarch cancelled a wet-lease agreement with the Lithuanian charter carrier Aurela – a plane had overshot the runway at Birmingham International Airport after a flight from Nice.
The aviation regulator allows UK-based airlines to take these leases from overseas operators for only up to 14 months, but there is growing evidence that operators are looking to rely on them for longer periods.
In a recent board meeting, the CAA’s safety regulation director, Gretchen Haskins, warned that there was a “lack of oversight” on aircraft leased from foreign operators because they are regulated by their domestic aviation authorities, with standards that might not meet the CAA’s. The regulator, she said, “needed to be assured that the British airline would retain sufficient oversight of the safety of the operation”.
Mrs Haskins added: “Which airline would be liable if there was an accident? British airlines should not be able to avoid liability to British passengers through subcontracting aircraft operations.”
Concerns were raised that the increased use of non-UK registered craft and their crew could “have an adverse impact on the numbers of British pilots being trained for commercial transport operations”. The board concluded that the “consumer’s interests must be kept paramount”.
It was also noted that there would be an impact on the CAA’s finances, as the regulator receives no income from operations involving foreign carriers regulated elsewhere. The CAA’s costs are met through charges on the companies and operations that it directly oversees.
A CAA spokesman said: “We are actively reviewing, with Easa [the European Aviation Safety Agency], improvements that could be made to ensure that airlines maintain the highest level of safety and we have effective oversight of their operations. This is particularly important where airlines are wet leasing from several operators, leading to greater complexity. All airlines should be providing clear information to their passengers at the time of booking.”
The news comes as the Government is trying to assess the best option for increasing airport capacity in the South-east, which could ultimately involve a hugely criticised fourth runway at Heathrow or even the construction of a whole new hub in the Thames Estuary.
Last year, ministers confirmed that they had ditched plans to sell the Government’s 49 per cent stake in National Air Traffic Services (Nats), which navigates pilots through the skies, after complaints that the state should not abandon such a strategic asset entirely to the private sector.
Nats is a lucrative business: on Friday it announced a pre-tax profit of £190.7m for the 12 months to April, although this was down negligibly from £194.5m a year earlier.