Hardly any other airline manages to hit the negative headlines as often as the Estonian Condor sister company Marabu Airlines. In the meantime, voices that the German Federal Aviation Office must intervene are becoming louder, especially in aviation forums.
It is very much in Condor's tradition to use subsidiaries or affiliated companies in order to be able to reduce costs. For example, in the past there were several ACMI providers within the group, namely Condor Berlin, Thomas Cook Aviation and Thomas Cook Balearics, who were supposed to produce more cheaply than the company based near Frankfurt. The reason for this is relatively simple: there is fierce competition on many routes from low-cost airlines, holiday carriers and also the former parent company Lufthansa.
Many airlines in Germany have disappeared from the market
The German holiday airline market has now shrunk to just a few providers with a German AOC. There used to be a large number of smaller airlines that were active in this segment, but these either went bankrupt or were swallowed up by larger providers (and then went bankrupt with them, as in the case of LTU/Air Berlin). Condor is only still on the market because the German federal government played the financial fire brigade several times. Apparently the carrier had better arguments than Air Berlin, for example, because it was smashed and closed.
Interestingly, Condor repeatedly presents itself as an absolute “underdog”. For example, when Thomas Cook went bankrupt, it was presented in such a way that, as a “profitable company, it was pulled into the maelstrom through no fault of its own”. The taxpayer was "allowed" to step in, then came Corona and the failed sale to Lot's parent company PGL, and once again the federal government made money available. But it is also a fact that German jobs could definitely be saved.
Condor fleet may not be expanded due to state credit
However, the so-called “small print” contains clauses intended to protect other providers from distortion of competition. Among other things, the fleet size is frozen until the state-guaranteed loans are paid off. In other words: Condor must not expand on its own AOC, but given the extremely high demand at the moment, that is the order of the day. The financial company Attestor, which bought the majority from the federal government, logically has a great interest in Condor being as profitable as possible.
If one recalls that the holiday airline cannot significantly increase the fleet because of the clauses relating to state aid, but may renew it, and at the same time the unions are always on the mat in view of the enormous price increases and have to demand more money for the German staff a solution. Condor already had this in the drawer, because what used to work more or less with Condor Berlin, Thomas Cook Aviation and Thomas Cook Balearics could also work now.
Mind you, Marabu Airlines is not a subsidiary of Condor, but a sister company. Both providers are majority owned by Attestor and are otherwise extremely closely linked. For example, the former Condor sales manager switched to the "little sister" as managing director. In the area of sales, the Estonian Marabu Airlines is fully docked with Condor. This is called the use of synergies in managerial language.
The "plan" is actually simple: Marabu Airlines takes over some routes from Condor, which are still marketed via the German holiday airline, offers an almost identical short-haul product and thus enables Condor to release aircraft that can be used on other routes. Actually just like it used to be done with Condor Berlin, Thomas Cook Aviation and Thomas Cook Balearics. Customers book via Condor's platforms and are constantly confronted with the Condor logo both during and afterward.
Many do not notice "Marabu" when booking
For many Germans, this year will be the first vacation since the beginning of the corona pandemic. You want to get from A to B as cheaply as possible and you sometimes overlook the fact that MBU is not Condor's ICAO code. And you don't pay attention to instructions like "operated by Marabu Airlines", because you book with "Germany's most popular holiday airline", to which Condor has chosen itself. It doesn't matter that this puts you on the same level as "Europe's most popular airline", i.e. Ryanair, which also cannot provide any evidence for the claim. Condor is so popular anyway that you really don't need any advertising...
The German holiday airline has already annoyed one or the other customer in the past with the use of "partner airlines". The booking was made with "Germany's most popular holiday airline", the operational implementation was then carried out, for example, by Smartlynx, whose performance on long-haul routes led to Condor ending the cooperation after several negative media reports. Marabu Airlines is the proverbial crown on everything, because the Estonian company, which itself only has two Airbus A320neo and has the rest done by subcontractors, has not been able to get out of the negative headlines since the start of operations.
Many passengers are also massively upset because they actually originally booked a Condor flight. Either with the German holiday airline or as part of a package tour. In the period when many people took advantage of the early booking discount for their summer holidays, (almost) everything on today's Marabu routes was still under DE flight numbers, i.e. Condor. Later it was switched to MBU and passengers or their agencies (in the case of package tours or bookings through travel agencies) were informed. A whole mountain of more emails will follow before the scheduled departure date, because Marabu Airlines itself has a fleet that is far too small to carry out all MBU flights. In other words, a new email goes out every time the “partner airline” changes. These are sent out by Condor Flugdienst GmbH for Marabu.
Expansions have also been screwed up by other corporations
Of course, there is also the opposite, because some tour operators do not inform the passengers at all and still write Condor as the airline on the vouchers, although they were informed several months ago that the sister company Marabu Airlines had "taken over" the routes. Package holidaymakers also need to be able to rely on the information in their travel documents being correct, but unfortunately this is not always the case. So it comes as a surprise at the airport that you have mistakenly queued at the Condor counter and are sent to Marabu. Delays are not the exception with this provider, but rather the rule. Some passengers are then totally surprised that they are sitting in "some Eastern European cheap box" and that although they "paid for a Condor flight". Marabu is located in Estonia. The subcontractor Nordica also belongs to the state of Estonia via a holding company. Heston is based in Lithuania. But the two "main subcontractors" cannot cope with the volume for a variety of reasons. Therefore, the sub from the sub is used and these are carriers from various European countries, including Germany, Bulgaria, Spain, Malta and so on. In a way, Marabu is a prime example of the united Europe of aviation, because if you have enough patience to wait, you have the realistic chance of being able to "fly through" a particularly large number of ACMI and charter providers.
The miserable performance of Marabu Airlines is primarily the result of a messed-up expansion, which was also intended to circumvent the requirements of the Condor state loan. The big wrong decision was not to enter the market slowly and carefully with your own aircraft, but almost exclusively with machines rented from other airlines. The procedure can be cheaper than running it yourself, but it is seldom at the end of the day. There is absolutely nothing wrong with "borrowing" machines and personnel from somewhere else to bridge bottlenecks, but building a complete market entry or major expansion on them has still failed.
As a reminder: Last year Corendon and its Maltese subsidiary thought they had to expand on a very large scale from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. An Airbus A330 has even been wet leased. It didn't work because demand and supply didn't match up front and back, and there were permanent delays and cancellations. The Corendon Group suffered massively financially from this messed-up expansion and was only able to save itself from ruin through a radical downsizing, an iron austerity plan and one or the other payment agreement. After all: You could still pull the emergency brake and then be content with baking smaller rolls.
Nordica is a national airline
At Marabu Airlines, however, they wanted to do better and looked for a state partner in Nordica. The state of Estonia owns Nordica, but the carrier is actually a newcomer itself. It was initially - with extremely modest success - as a virtual carrier in the air. Initially, aircraft were leased from Adria Airways, later this was carried out by its own sister company Xfly, which specializes in the provision of ACMI and charter services. Sales were made by the Polish company Lot, but this left again due to a lack of lasting success. The Estonian governments never seem to have gotten over the bankruptcy of Estonian Air, so they wanted to give Nordica a comeback - this time with its own AOC. In Estonia, however, it has also been recognized that the Xfly business model in the regional segment is also suitable for holiday flights. But for this you need larger aircraft and they have been organized in the form of Airbus A320.
With Marabu Airlines, the company also won its first major customer and immediately lent a helping hand in setting up and obtaining the Estonian AOC, which could be obtained almost record-breakingly quickly. Does it all sound like a perfect combination and that with a state carrier as your primary partner? Not quite, because Nordica does not seem to be an attractive employer in Germany, because there are far too few pilots and flight attendants. Although the prospect is given that they can switch to Marabu later, the conditions offered do not seem to be such that Nordica will really break in the doors. Again and again, Marabu flights have to be canceled or significantly delayed because the "partner airline" has too few staff available. In addition, there are of course technical defects, which in combination with sometimes extremely long waiting times for spare parts are not exactly beneficial.
Heston is reportedly doing a little better. However, the staffing level in Germany is also said to be very thin. If you compare the frequencies of cancellations and delays that are the responsibility of the Lithuanian airline, you are in a better position than Nordica. This does not help the affected passengers, who have to wait forever or are stuck. Again and again other airlines, i.e. the sub from the sub, have to help out at short notice, but most of the time the child has already fallen into the well, because demand is high in midsummer and it is not always possible to find a replacement aircraft on the same day.
Regular guest in the negative headlines
Although Marabu Airlines claims that the flight plan has been "stretched" and that delays have been minimized, it has not been possible to achieve sufficient stability in flight operations to date. So you remain a big headline topic for the media, because there is almost always some long delay, some failure or something that can serve as a "gap filler".
The German newspaper Bildzeitung seems to have specialized in reporting negatively about almost every whoop from Marabu Airlines or their subcontractors. Shortly thereafter, many other media took over the information, so that once again all of Germany knew that something went wrong with the Condor sister. There are repeated calls for the German Federal Aviation Authority to "finally intervene". According to Bild, a pilot sent a report to the LBA with serious allegations about the conditions he had claimed, and most recently a captain who flew across Europe with a defective engine caused the corresponding negative media presence.
In aviation forums in particular, it can be read again and again that the Federal Aviation Authority should "finally wake up". But there is a problem: The German LBA is simply not responsible for the supervision of Marabu Airlines and their non-German subcontractors. Only in the event of imminent danger can this authority “chain” the affected aircraft until the defects have been rectified. Otherwise, all you can do is send a report to the relevant national aviation authority and ask them to take the appropriate steps. However, the LBA has no legal claim to the actual implementation.
National authorities can only take emergency measures in the event of imminent danger
For many it may sound absurd that Germany's supreme supervisory authority for aviation in the case of "foreign suppliers" is an extremely toothless and powerless tiger. But that is the reality and this is also anchored in law. The LBA can only issue a flight ban to a carrier that is under the supervision of a national authority of another EU country under very specific circumstances, i.e. in the event of imminent danger, and this then only applies in Germany and nowhere else.
In most cases, defects that lead to a temporary take-off ban would be identified during so-called ramp checks. There may be various reasons. It can be a matter of serious technical defects as well as missing but safety-relevant equipment such as too few life jackets. The respective control authority can also temporarily chain up an aircraft if, for example, the insurance policy is not carried or a crew member cannot produce his license. The latter actually happens again and again, because even commercial pilots are only people who, like any car driver, can accidentally forget their driver's license at home. If the document can be shown or the inspectors can validate the validity of the license in some other way, usually nothing more than a small fine is incurred, which the person concerned has to pay.
Technical defects or missing safety-related equipment must be corrected accordingly. Another ramp check is then carried out and if everything is fine, the aircraft can be used again. Incidentally, ramp checks can also affect private pilots. Similar to general traffic controls in road traffic, pretty much everyone is checked almost at random.
However, it is an open secret that the officials responsible for this control activity in the EU are mostly extremely experienced and, in terms of the safety of passengers and crew, know very well which providers are always "worth" a visit to, because you will be as good as always - and with complete justification - "find something".
Crew swap can solve problems immediately
The flight duty times can also be checked in the course of ramp checks and the respective crew can be "shut down" in the event of violations. In the case of small things, you go to a hotel and you can only fly again after the rest period has been "sitted out". Bigger things can get really expensive for the airline and under certain circumstances the commanders, i.e. the captains, can also be prosecuted. However: If everything else is in order, it is sufficient to “replace” the crew and then the plane can take off. The LBA cannot do more with a non-German airline. Of course you can still collect fines, but you can't put the carrier on the ground.
The German officials are - like all their colleagues in all other EU countries - obliged to report serious violations and in particular initial suspicions of systematic violations or problems to the competent supervisory authority of the country in which the airline and/or aircraft are registered. To put it simply: A report is written in Germany and then goes, for example, to the civil aviation authority of Estonia, which can then take the further steps at its own discretion, but does not have to. Things get complicated, especially when a particularly large number of ACMI carriers from different EU countries are in use. You can't just write that "this and that wouldn't fit with Marabu", because that would simply be untrue. For the supervisory authorities, only the operating carrier is relevant and not the company on whose behalf the flight is carried out.
It depends on the operating carrier and not on the customer
For outsiders, "everything is marabou", because that's the airline that gets negative reviews from the media. But that is exactly untrue, because, for example, in the incident in which a passenger had to announce a flight cancellation, many media withheld the fact that the operating carrier was not Marabu, but the Maltese Air Horizont. It took place on board a Boeing 737 under the supervision of the Civil Aviation Authority of Malta. Air Horizont is also overseen by TM-CAD. So a report sent to Estonia would have no effect at all, because they could only forward it to Malta and do absolutely nothing else.
At this point, it is not claimed at all that the Federal Aviation Authority would or would have evaded such a “whoops”. The officials of the LBA know exactly where reports have to be sent and do a great job every day. The reputation that the authority enjoys is quite rightly good. However, the Federal Aviation Authority is not a "jack of all trades", but can only act on the basis of laws, regulations and international agreements.
European pilots' unions rightly warn that the work of the authorities can be made much more difficult by sub-sub-sub constructions. Perhaps the current chaos surrounding Marabu and its subcontractors is a warning to politicians that they should adapt aviation rules to the 21st century, at least at European level. Many international contracts are extremely old and do not even know wet lease constructions. There is also no other industry that makes as much use of the freedom to provide services within the EU as aviation. It would therefore be appropriate to standardize the provisions and requirements in such a way that the same conditions prevail for everyone, at least within the EU. This would promote fair competition. On this occasion, the division of labor between the individual aviation authorities could also be better organized so that they are in a position, if necessary, to use effective means against carriers that are supervised by other authorities. So the ball is clearly in the hands of politicians and not national aviation authorities.