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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

With British Airways in need Qatar Airways seizes on chance to put spare aircraft to work

With extra capacity amid Gulf dispute, strike-hit BA leases nine planes from Qatari carrier

A British Airways aircraft descends to land at Heathrow Airport. Toby Melville / Reuters
A British Airways aircraft descends to land at Heathrow Airport. Toby Melville / Reuters

Qatar Airways started putting its aircraft to work for strike-hit British Airways yesterday, as it seeks to reduce spare capacity created by an Arab ban on its flights.

BA, whose IAG parent is 20 per cent owned by the Arabian Gulf carrier, is being affected by a cabin crew strike and Qatar Airways has temporarily provided nine aircraft to help it during the two-week period of industrial action over pay.

Unions representing BA staff have denounced the agreement.

The Qatar Airways aircraft were operating from Heathrow yesterday with an A320 flying to Brussels under the BA388 flight number in the afternoon UAE time, according to a tweet from Sweden-based plane tracking website Flightradar24.

BA said on Friday it plans to borrow planes from Qatar Airways to ferry its passengers, bringing a measure of relief to customers of the airline after a difficult period which included a massive IT failure in May.

''We will operate 99.5 per cent of our schedule," BA said on Friday. "Our oneworld partner Qatar Airways will be operating a small number of short-haul flights on our behalf."

"We have merged a very small number of Heathrow long-haul services and all customers affected have been notified over the past week."

Qatar Airways is currently banned from flying to and from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain after the countries severed economic and political ties on June 5 over Doha’s support for "terrorist groups aiming to destabilise the region". Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain subsequently closed Qatar Airways offices and shut their airspace to the airline, which now has spare capacity to fill during the busy summer period.

"BA and Qatar are making the best of their challenging circumstances, but of course BA would prefer not to have the strike and Qatar would prefer to have normal access to markets," said Will Horton, a senior analyst at the aviation research company Capa.

The feud has hit Qatar hard. The country's benchmark stock index has dropped 9 per cent since the crisis erupted and the Qatari riyal is trading at higher rates against the US dollar in the forwards market.

BA applied last week to wet-lease nine Qatar registered Airbus A320 or A321 aircraft between July 1 and July 16, the UK's civil aviation authority said. The airline said it also would ask for additional period that has yet to be defined for a maximum of two months.

BA mixed fleet cabin crew had called for the strike to express their unhappiness with what they said were plans by the airline to impose sanctions on crew members who had gone on strike in the past. Union Unite, the vehicle cabin crew used to express their grievances, is also unhappy with wages for the crew, which it has labelled "poverty pay".

The airline responded to the allegations of poor pay by saying that its wages for new crew at £21,000 (Dh100,264) a year was in line with pay at competing airlines.

"We had reached a deal with Unite on pay, which the union said was acceptable. They should call off this unnecessary strike and allow their members to vote on the pay increase," the airline said.

The Unite union crew members have also denounced the lease with Qatar Airways. “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,” it said.

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority said that BA was within its right to apply for the wet lease.

"The application has been made on the grounds that the lease is justified on the basis of exceptional needs (Article 13(3)(b)(i) of Regulation (EC) No 1008/2008) to enable British Airways to continue passenger operations in light of planned operational disruption by its mixed Ffeet cabin crew," the civil aviation authority said.