Wizz Air has taken a contrarian approach to the pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions. Since April it has launched 250 new routes (including 38 for Wizz Air UK) and opened 12 new bases.
In May, it was the first European airline to restart flights from the UK, with new hygiene restrictions in place (and amid a blanket Foreign Office advisory against non-essential travel). Over the next five years, it will receive 250 new aircraft.
Today it has launched new bases at Gatwick and Doncaster Sheffield.
A 6am flight to Naples from Gatwick this morning marked the first of this fresh offering. From Gatwick, it will also fly to Athens, Lanzarote and Malta. It will operate routes to Tenerife, Malaga, Larnaca (Cyprus) and Lublin (Poland) from Doncaster Sheffield.
“We’ve been looking to expand Wizz UK for sometime,” Owain Jones, managing director of Wizz Air UK, told Telegraph Travel.
“Having seen demand for routes – a lot of UK leisure outbound routes over the summer – we took the view that we could push the brand further into the UK. We wanted to grow in London and were looking to get into Gatwick for sometime,” he added.
As Wizz expands, other major airlines are pulling back. British Airways is to cut flights from Gatwick as part of its Covid recovery plan, for example.
So how is this budget carrier, which includes a UK offshoot that started just three years ago as “a contingency for Brexit”, thriving in this current climate?
It began with “a strong financial base,” says Mr Jones. From there, Wizz Air has worked at adapting quickly.
“Rather than having [...] routes that we were serving maybe five or six times a day before the pandemic, we took the view that those aren’t going to exist for sometime, but there do remain pockets of demand across the board for all destinations,” explained Mr Jones. “What we’ve done now is really spread our capacity to pick up those pockets of demand.”
So when Spain was added to the UK’s quarantine list on July 26 and more people looked to travel to the Greek islands, Wizz added capacity to those. While Portugal was, briefly, on the quarantine-free list, the airline added flights there. Most recently, when Santorini was green-lit last Thursday, Wizz added flights for over the half-term holiday.
Foresight is also key. “You can see in the Canaries, for example, that infection rates are coming down, so it may be that we’ll see those come out of quarantine in the future,” said Mr Jones.
Still, Wizz cannot escape the impact of the continued, and last-minute changes, to travel rules. Wizz Air UK had planned to fly at 80 per cent of capacity by the end of 2020. While in August and September it was flying as much as planned before the pandemic (80 per cent in August), as we move into Autumn, it is looking at 50 per cent.
As we await the latest quarantine list update today, criticism will widely be towards the UK Government’s Grant Shapps and the Department for Transport. There is still no start date for Mr Shapps’ proposals to reduce quarantine times.
However, for Mr Jones, the real need is for agreements across countries.
He said: “What I think is the most disappointing aspect in terms of regulation of travel since Covid, which is a failure at an international level, even within Europe, is to reach some sort of consensus about how we can get people travelling safely and in an acceptable way across borders. That, I think, is a fundamental question that needs answering. Countries need to agree what will be effective for people to travel.”
Differing domestic restrictions, such as the “firebreak” lockdown in Wales and the three-tier strategy is also harming recovery. “What we’re seeing is it chips away at confidence,” said Mr Jones.
That applies to different international approaches. Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick Airport, also spoke to Telegraph Travel about the launch of the Wizz Air base. He pointed to passenger demand as one of the biggest challenges for the airport: it is down by 80 per cent.
He said: “We started to see the beginning of small green shoots of recovery during the summer, but quarantine measures have had a dramatic impact on traffic, which is why we urgently need a single, harmonised approach to testing that would see quarantine lifted for passengers travelling between high risk countries if they receive a negative test result up to 72 hours before departure.
“However, the launch of Wizz Air’s base at Gatwick means that once a testing regime is in place and passengers are able to travel more freely and confidently, Gatwick can offer a huge range of fantastic destinations at competitive prices.”
This is the first time in seven years that an airline has launched a base at Gatwick, a glimmer of positivity for the UK’s ailing aviation industry. After seven months of international travel restrictions for Britons, the sector is in desperate need of change.
Mr Jones concludes: “The key thing is for Governments to come to an aligned position about how we get people travelling, because that connectivity is going to be essential not just to the economic recovery of Britain but to the economic recovery of Europe and beyond.”