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LUFTHANSA

How Germany’s Lufthansa is lifting off again as lockdowns ease

Cabin crews on standby with destinations revealed only hours before the flight, pilots put on simulators to keep up to date -- an airline restarting after the pandemic is a far cry from the clockwork precision of the pre-coronavirus world.

How Germany's Lufthansa is lifting off again as lockdowns ease
A Lufthansa plane prepares to take off from Munich to Los Angeles on June 3rd, a direct route which was just restarted. Photo: DPA

“Flexibility” is the top priority, said Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr last week, as the airline has “developed completely new procedures in flight and route planning”.

As borders slammed shut to halt virus transmission, about 90 percent of passenger connections at the German airline fell away, leaving an “emergency” timetable comparable to the 1950s.

Daily passengers dwindled to 3,000 from its usual 350,000.

With the peak of the crisis over in Europe, the airline is plotting its restart — and the entire operation has been forced to act more nimbly to cope.

For Lufthansa crews, the inch-by-inch progress means “they have almost no fixed shifts any more, only on-call periods”, Spohr said.

READ ALSO: Lufthansa puts 31,000 workers on shorter hours until September

“They know how quickly they have to make it to the airport and that they should be nearby, and then they get a few hours' notice about where they're going.”

“Methods we've always used to patch over problems have become the standard,” he added.

Some flights, like the first India-bound service, have been dropped almost at the last moment for lack of landing authorisation.

High hurdles

In other cases “colleagues all at once had to add a second flight in parallel” to meet high demand — including on a busy May holiday weekend when “I myself and our family” were on a waiting list, Spohr said.

“Historic data we've gathered over decades are useless for flight planning in the near future,” said chief financial officer Thorsten Dirks, explaining that Lufthansa's “artificial intelligence has to be re-trained” to address the altered situation.

“In these cases, human beings are faster and more flexible.”

Flight and cabin crew on standby through the period must also be kept up to date.

Some pilots have been flying simulators to stay in touch, while other airlines like Senegal's Transair have been operating empty flights to maintain pilots' licences.

Around 700 of Lufthansa's 763 aircraft were grounded at the peak of the lockdowns, parked in orderly rows on the apron of Frankfurt airport — and even taking up one of the runways.

READ ALSO: Lufthansa's Carsten Spohr in 2018. Photo: DPA

Lufthansa is keen to get them up in the air as a longer out-time means more technical work to get them flying again.

After up to three months of inactivity, planes “can be reactivated in one or two days”, Lufthansa spokeswoman Lara Matuschek said.

Any longer time out means placing them into “deep storage”, with steps like antibacterial treatments for the empty fuel tanks.

“There are much higher hurdles to reactivation” from deep storage, and “it can take up to four weeks” as more extensive maintenance work may be needed, Matuschek explained.

'Exciting time'

From early June, the German juggernaut has been offering more routes, aiming to serve 90 percent of short-haul and 70 percent of long-haul destinations by September.

But it will only offer around 40 percent of its usual capacity and has been forced to turn to Berlin for a nine-billion-euro bailout.

READ ALSO: Germany's Lufthansa 'unable to approve' state rescue over strict conditions

“Our main aim was to connect major German and European cities to our hubs” like Germany's biggest airport Frankfurt, hoping also “to fly to strong tourist destinations”, Matuschek told AFP.

In the Far East, Singapore Airlines expects “two days to a week” to reactivate aircraft.

The carrier will offer 12 additional destinations in June and July, but its network remains pared back with just 32 of its normal 135 routes and six percent of pre-pandemic capacity.

In Japan, a gradual journey back to normal has begun for JAL and ANA, with the latter offering 30 percent of normal flights in June after 15 percent in May.

Meanwhile, Lufthansa's call centres have been burdened with cancellations and re-bookings, with reimbursements alone running into hundreds of millions of euros per month.

“The more we bring the system back online, the more efficient we have to become,” Spohr said.

“But you can't work this way in a company our size and hope to make money.”

By Yann Schreiber

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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point. 

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