Yes, it's perfectly legal.
It happens rarely, but it’s an unwelcome surprise just the same: you think you’re flying on your chosen airline, only to learn that you will be taking off on another carrier—possibly one you’ve ever heard of.
That’s what happened recently to scores of passengers, who were expecting to fly a new Norwegian 787 Dreamliner between London and New York, but were informed that they’d be traveling on a plane owned by Spanish charter line Wamos Air, because a damaged jet had to be taken off line for a few weeks. Norwegian alerted customers that the in-flight entertainment on the substitute plane, an Airbus A330, would be “limited,” unlike the state-of-the-art offerings the fliers had undoubtedly expected. In addition to an apology, the airline offered fliers the chance to rebook at no charge, or get a full refund.
Norwegian has had a few of these switcheroos, but it’s hardly the only airline that occasionally has to rustle up a substitute plane to keep its schedule going. Most carriers, after all, don’t have several spare planes sitting in the hangar.
Because it’s growing so fast, Norwegian has had a few of these switcheroos, but it’s hardly the only airline that occasionally has to rustle up a substitute plane to keep its schedule going. Most carriers, after all, don’t have several spare planes sitting in the hangar. These substitutes most often occur when airlines have to take a plane out of service due to a mechanical problem that can't be resolved quickly, or when new planes on order aren’t delivered on time. To cover such situations, many carriers already have arrangements with charter companies that can provide a ready-to-go plane, complete with its own trained crews, on relatively short notice—using what are known as “wet-leasing” contracts. (Because of airline regulations, crew are only able to fly on aircraft they've been trained on—and each airline configures their own planes somewhat differently.)
The names of these understudies are pretty obscure; in addition to Wamos, which was formerly known as Pullmantour, others include Portuguese leasing company Hi-Fly, which operates an all-Airbus, mostly widebody, fleet.
But even if the planes are older and the amenities aren’t quite up to snuff, the planes are subject to same safety standards and regulations as those of all airlines. Foreign air carriers operating to the U.S. are required to notify the FAA any time they're flying another carrier's plane into the U.S., says agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette. “We would just make sure the aircraft meets requirements and is consistent with the other planes they fly.” She adds that “this is strictly about safety” and that the FAA doesn’t get into passenger service questions like the quality of the entertainment or legroom.
So what, if anything, are passengers entitled to? If they’re still getting to where they’re going on time, then they may not be entitled to anything, but most airlines, like Norwegian did, offer refunds or other compensation. And plane switches can happen at large, legacy lines, too—even if it doesn't involve using another carrier's fleet, to the consumer, it can be just as jarring. When American Airlines substituted an older 777 for a newer Dreamliner on its Los Angeles-Shanghai route last year, for example, a number of premium fliers complained because it was effectively a downgrade in comfort upfront.
In effect, they weren’t getting what they were paying for. As several sharp-eyed passengers noted (after combing through the airline’s contact of carriage), American customers do have the right to cancel without penalty or to request a rerouting in the event of “a substitution of equipment not acceptable to the passenger.” So it’s advisable to check your own carrier’s policy on your rights if a similar situation arises. (The Department of Transportation did not respond to our requests for comment on whether any government consumer rules apply.)
More recently, some Virgin America passengers found that flights they booked would actually be operated by Alaska Airlines; even though those two lines recently merged, their in-flight product is quite different, especially up front, and Virgin is still officially a separate brand (until it disappears sometime next year). One flier reportedly wasn’t too happy when he found that the Dallas to New York flight he’d booked in first class would instead be on a regional jet via Alaska. In a statement, Alaska said it had reached out to affected passengers and offered a full refund to fliers who'd booked first class on Virgin America. And, to be fair, such "cross-fleeting" is quite common as airlines merge and start re-thinking where to position their planes.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s recent admission that it’s running behind schedule in cranking out its new 737 MAX planes could have implications for Norwegian passengers this summer.
A Norwegian spokesman tells Condé Nast Traveler, however, that the carrier will operate its new 737 flights from the East Coast to Ireland, the U.K. and Norway on the launch dates, as planned, by borrowing some of 737-800s it already owns and operates within Europe. “It is short delay” in the delivery schedule, he notes, and the in-flight service will be the same as it will be on the new planes (although the swaps will fly with fewer people due to weight restrictions.) Of course, that means that the routes where those fill-in planes would have been operating will be short a few aircraft. “We will need to wet-lease on a short term basis within Europe,” he says.
This article has been republished from www.cntraveler.com