LOT Polish Airlines is being challenged by the grounding of its five Boeing 737 MAX 8s and some of its Rolls-Royce powered Boeing 787 fleet during the European high season.

The MAXs have been grounded since March after an October 2018 crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX and the March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines MAX crash, killing a total of 346 people. The second accident led to the country-by-country worldwide grounding that remains in place. 

LOT CEO Rafał Milczarski told ATW on the sidelines of this week’s IATA AGM in Seoul that authorities are going through a “very thorough process” regarding the MAX grounding. “It is obvious that some mistakes were made in the past. [The European Aviation Safety Agency] EASA and FAA are extra cautious in their approach to make a decision [on the lifting of the grounding], which is “taking probably longer than expected.”

As a European airline, LOT relies on EASA to determine the MAX’s airworthiness, in which Milczarski has full confidence. “EASA is very professional and regulates the market to the highest standards. When EASA decides the MAX is safe to fly, then it is truly safe to fly.”

He believes there is no need to change the name of the aircraft, because it will not change anything. “It is still a type of 737 with a different engine type,” he said.

LOT is wet leasing four aircraft and taking additional dry-leased aircraft to fill gaps in the MAX delivery stream, which had been planned for the summer. “We [made] this decision [to lease additional aircraft based on the] interest of our passengers who purchased tickets and need to be transported. This way we can keep the commitment to our clients and maintain our flight schedules,” he said.

Asked if LOT will ask for compensation from Boeing, Milczarski said, “As a responsible carrier, we will have to calculate additional costs resulting from the grounding. I am sure every reasonable airline is doing the same thing now.”

Milczarski hopes that when the grounding is lifted and costs are known, serious discussions with Boeing representatives will be conducted to solve the problem.

In addition, engine problems with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 TEN-powered 787s have led airlines to ground the type for inspections and maintenance. “We also have had some technical issues with Rolls-Royce [two Dreamliners are grounded], but the situation is under control now. Our passengers do not need to worry about series of flight cancellations or delays.”

LOT operates a fleet of eight Boeing 787-8s and five larger 787-9s. On June 7, LOT will take delivery of another 787-9. By year-end, LOT will have a total of 15 787s.

The Star Alliance member has expanded its long-haul network significantly. “We are satisfied with this move forward in the sense that the Polish and Central European market actually does need more long-haul activity.” Poland is a growing market that has been significantly underserved.

LOT, which opened long-haul flights from the Hungarian capital Budapest to New York and Chicago in May 2018, plans to base more aircraft in Budapest for its intra-European flights. “This is a natural consequence of steps taken a year ago. It was the first time in LOT’s history that we have launched long-haul scheduled flights from outside Poland.

“Budapest is a fast-growing market, although a little more seasonal than we initially assumed. For each long-haul destination, it takes time to develop—typically around three years before it becomes profitable. But this is something we have expected—you have to invest in the market to make a profit. Now we want to introduce a larger scale of transfer traffic to improve our seat factor on flights to the US from Hungary. Budapest will become our second hub in the future,” he said.

Like other European carriers, LOT is also being challenged by peak summer season disruptions generated by issues with European air traffic controller capacity, which he said are totally inadequate. “The industry is not sorting out the problems. We are not attacking the in-fact root of the problem; we are just trying to find temporary solutions around these problems,” he concluded.

Kurt Hofmann hofmann.aviation@netway.at