Wet-leasing: it’s an aviation term that tends to make ears perk up because it sounds, well, odd. Just what part is wet exactly? The plane? Hopefully not the interior because that sounds like a hassle. And a typical follow-up question: so is there dry-leasing too? The answer to that is yes. Unsurprisingly our tweet about a LOT Embraer 195 being sent to Bamboo Airways for wet-lease threw up any number of questions. So what on earth is wet-leasing? Let’s dive into the details.

What on earth is wet-leasing?

Put simply, wet-leasing a plane involves taking over a plane for a period of time, and taking a crew along with it. It would be kind of like renting a car complete with a licensed driver, except it’s a little more complicated because it takes more than a driver to operate an airplane. Wet-leasing can be a quick fix for an airline that’s in need of more capacity or a specific aircraft type right away. Rather than figure out how to acquire a plane and the staff needed to fly and serve its passengers, it can bring in some hired guns to do everything for them – sometimes with very little notice.

There are other reasons to do a wet-lease too. For example, Air Sinai’s mysterious flights between Tel Aviv and Cairo. These are flown with planes wet-leased from Egyptair because the national carrier cannot fly to Israel using its own name.

Air Sinai A220 Egyptair what on earth is wet-leasing?
One of Air Sinai’s unmarked A220s arriving at Tel Aviv (TLV). The aircraft actually belong to Egyptair.

On the other side of the equation, for an airline that finds itself with excess capacity and/or staff (a common occurrence these days) it can be a great way to make a bit of money and find a home for what would otherwise be a parked plane and maybe furloughed staff.

So in this case Bamboo Airways (QH), a recent upstart in Vietnam, apparently needs a little more lift. Bamboo Airways, as it happens, had planned to launch international flights starting with a Hanoi-Prague service earlier this year – but global events put a hold on that. They have a decent domestic network, though, and because Vietnam has been successful at containing COVID-19, there are plenty of people traveling internally in the country.

Start your own airline overnight

You could also use wet-leasing to start up an airline with no lead time, were you so inclined. (Having a penchant for finding novel ways to lose your money would also help.) Wet-leased planes come not only with a crew but also an operating certificate – normally a time-consuming aspect of starting up an airline. Those offering a wet-lease will also handle maintenance, insurance, catering logistics and anything else needed to complete a flight safely and legally. On the other hand, you won’t have much say over the quality of the onboard product.

For that reason wet-leasing can be a source of irritation for passengers. For example as Norwegian made its big expansion in long-haul flying, and as its 787s were affected by a number of early reliability issues and then by Rolls Royce engine problems – they had to occasionally bring in wet-leased planes to fly their routes. So rather than a brand new Dreamliner with all the bells and whistles, passengers would find themselves on a much less appealing Euroatlantic 767.

HiFly A380 wet-lease wet-leasing dry-lease Norwegian Bamboo Airways
HiFly’s famous A380, ready to be wet-leased in pre-pandemic times

It could also work in passengers’ favor, however. Norwegian has been known to bring in HiFly’s A380 for its most important transatlantic flights from time to time – an ex-Singapore Airlines plane with lie-flat business class seats instead of Norwegian’s “premium” recliners. (That plane, as we covered here, has been converted to carry cargo during the pandemic.)

Dry-leasing

So then, what is a dry-lease? As you may have imagined, that is a lease that involves the airplane only. It’s also a much more common way to get an airplane. Many aircraft lessors buy planes and then lease them on to carriers around the world. At any given airline it’s likely they’ll have a mix of planes they’ve purchased outright and others that they’re leasing. In those cases, it’s the airline’s own cabin configurations, seating and flight attendants that get placed onto the plane. It’ll usually be flown for a number of years before being returned.

Aircraft leasing is big business, and some of the bigger lessors can have significant impacts on aircraft production decisions. Steven Udvar-Házy, one of the best-known figures in this world and current Executive Chairman of the Board at Air Lease Corporation, reportedly helped influence the design of a number of aircraft.

Leasing in all its forms is a multi-billion dollar business. And wet-leases are an important part of keeping aviation going.

Featured image © Rafal Pruszkowski

Gabriel Leigh grew up on long-haul flights and has been fascinated by airplanes since he can remember. Now based in Sweden, he writes about transport, travel and more for publications like The New York Times, Monocle and Forbes.


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