British Airways, easyJet and TUI are using an employment loophole to operate flights with EU crew without UK work visas as they grapple with staff shortages.
Airlines are borrowing EU-registered planes under so-called wet-lease arrangements as they grapple with some of the worst staff shortages on record.
The practice means they can circumvent post-Brexit immigration rules that would otherwise prevent airlines from flying EU personnel without a UK work visa.
British Airways has borrowed four planes from Finnair and four from sister airline Iberia instead of using one of the 18 UK-registered Airbus planes the flag carrier has in storage, industry sources say.
EasyJet has ‘wet leased’ eight planes to operate from Gatwick and one from Bristol from SmartLynx Airlines of Latvia.
TUI is using five of SmartLynx’s jets for services from Gatwick, Manchester and Doncaster airports, as well as two planes from Lithuanian airline Avion Express for flights from Gatwick.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has so far resisted demands from airlines, airports and ground handling companies to allow an influx of foreign workers to ease a staffing crisis that has caused misery in UK airports this year.
Bosses want the government to consider offering temporary visas similar to those issued to fruit pickers, musicians and religious figures to fill labor gaps.
Mr Shapps, however, insisted that ‘more immigration’ is not the answer to the difficulties of the aviation industry.
Airline executives are said to have warned Department for Transport officials in a call last Friday that carriers would use an increasing number of foreign-flagged planes with only a small number of UK-registered planes if ministers do not did not relax immigration laws.
It is estimated that more than 2.5 million passengers will fly to and from the UK on the three airlines’ foreign-registered and foreign-crewed aircraft.
Airlines have said that “wet lease” is standard industry practice. There is no indication that he breaks any of the UK immigration laws.
An airline source said it was not a viable way to bring European labor to the UK as it is much more expensive and ‘just a back-up measure when the industry has short-term capacity needs”.
Another disagreed, saying it wasn’t always more expensive – instead, it depended on supply and demand for surplus planes among rival airlines.
A British Airways spokesman said: “To provide our customers with access to as many destinations as possible, our partner airlines are operating select European flights for us as we continue to rebuild our operation.”
EasyJet and TUI declined to comment.
Mr Shapps is, however, considering easing rules that prevent airlines from cutting their schedules at capacity-limited airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick, where take-off and landing slots are in high demand and worth tens of millions of dollars. books each.
The Transport Secretary has previously criticized carriers for selling seats on flights they were unable to operate.
DfT officials issued an emergency consultation over the weekend on the “70:30 rules” this summer. This would mean airlines must operate 70% of their flights at airports with limited capacity or return slots to an industry coordinator.
The airlines received the consultation last Friday and have until Monday to respond, according to an industry source.
Gatwick last week limited the number of flights that can take off and land at the airport for the first time in its history to deal with same-day cancellations by airlines.
It puts in place a cap of 825 in July and 850 in August, meaning up to 4,000 flights will have to be cut, disrupting the summer holidays of hundreds of thousands of Britons.