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Immigration loophole will not be closed until autumn in move to avoid summer holiday chaos

Travellers queue at security at Heathrow Airport in London during the travel chaos of June 2022 - AP Photo/Frank Augstein
Travellers queue at security at Heathrow Airport in London during the travel chaos of June 2022 - AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Airlines will be free to parachute in foreign workers this summer after ministers climbed down on migration rules to avoid a repeat of last year's travel chaos.

The Home Office has bowed to intensive lobbying and will allow airlines to continue circumventing the post-Brexit immigration regime using a practice known as wet leasing.

This loophole was due to be closed this spring, but three senior industry figures said that Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, has delayed changes until autumn.

The decision – a climbdown from the much tougher stance taken by Priti Patel and Grant Shapps, the respective former home and transport secretaries – will mean carriers can more easily bring in foreign labour, in an effort to avoid the hours-long queues that blighted last summer's getaway.

However, the change is also likely to spark calls for a more general relaxation of rules by other industries suffering from a labour shortage.

Wet leasing is a common industry practice that involves airlines borrowing aircraft and staff to run services, and has proved particularly effective in a post-Brexit world that has limited the aviation sector’s ability to source staff from abroad.

The practice uses European Union-registered aircraft, allowing airlines to circumvent post-Brexit immigration rules that would otherwise prevent carriers from running flights with EU staff without a British employment visa.

Suella Braverman - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Suella Braverman - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Airlines have embarked on massive hiring sprees throughout the winter in the expectation that flight numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels for the first time.

Nevertheless, fears persist among industry leaders that a red-hot labour market has left the sector chronically short of staff. Luis Gallego, the chief executive of British Airways’ owner, has conceded that he is worried about how the summer will play out – though his concerns were primarily focused on staffing levels of non-BA employees at Heathrow Airport.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, is understood to have warned Baroness Vere, the aviation minister, that a shortage of air traffic control staff also threatens to cause disruption.

Concerns also persist about the impact of potential strikes by Border Force officials over Easter – though previous industrial action has been mitigated by drafting in army personnel to do the checks.

Industry sources said that Tui will capitalise on the Government’s decision by wet leasing nine aircraft from abroad. British Airways will bring in four planes from Finnair and its Euroflyer division will borrow three from Avion Express Malta.
Jet2 will use five planes owned by Czech and Slovakian carriers and easyJet is understood to have six wet lease aircraft coming into the UK this summer, sources added.

Airlines are expecting to carry a similar number of passengers this summer as in 2019 after chaos caused by the easing of Covid travel restrictions last year.

Mr Shapps accused industry bosses of failing to prepare by hiring enough staff in the winter months before a surge in passengers in 2022. As a result, Britons venturing abroad for the first time since the start of the pandemic faced chaotic scenes at airports. Check-in queues snaked out of terminal buildings and fights broke out in security lanes as passengers tried to get to departure gates on time.

Airlines resorted to desperate measures to keep services running. EasyJet, for instance, removed a row of seats on some of its aircraft to reduce the required number of cabin crew. Meanwhile British Airways offered sign-on bonuses to security cleared staff who were willing to change jobs.

Pleas by aviation bosses to grant temporary visas to overseas workers to address chaotic scenes at airports up and down the country last summer fell on deaf ears, and ministers vowed to close the wet leasing loophole.

At the time Mr Shapps insisted that the UK “cannot always reach for the lever marked ‘more immigration’” to combat staff shortages.

On Wednesday night, a Government spokesman said: “Leaving the EU enabled us to introduce a points-based immigration system and we want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK’s domestic workforce instead of relying on cheap labour from abroad.

“Many roles within the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors – including pilots and cabin crew – are eligible under the points-based system.”