Wizz Air’s President: We want to continue building on our position as number one at Larnaca airport

Wizz Air’s President: We want to continue building on our position as number one at Larnaca airport

Since establishing a base at Larnaca Airport in 2020, Wizz Air has seen remarkable growth, doubling its capacity and becoming a leading airline in Cyprus.

In conversation with Phileleftheros and in-cyprus, Robert Carey, the President of Wizz Air, offers a glimpse into the airline’s strategic expansions and operational resilience amidst the complex challenges posed by the pandemic, geopolitical tensions, and the pressing need for sustainable aviation practices, highlighting the company’s rapid recovery and ambitious growth post-COVID.

He also delves into the broader implications of these developments for Cyprus’s tourism and air travel sectors. With an eye on the future, he discusses the potential for new routes and increased connectivity, stressing Wizz Air’s commitment to making travel more accessible and affordable.

Wizz Air has established a base at Larnaca Airport. How does the company evaluate the impact of this decision so far?

We first started flying to Cyprus in 2010 as an inbound airline. In 2020, we opened the base in Larnaca. We have a great partnership with the airport over there with the Hermes group and so it made sense We started with two aircraft and have now doubled the capacity last summer to four aircraft. In the summer of 2023, we saw a nice uptick in performance and are very happy with it. So now we’re number two, in Cyprus overall and the market leader in Larnaca. So, we are very happy with the growth of the base.

In 2023, Wizz Air saw a significant rise in passenger numbers in Cyprus compared to 2022. What do you believe were the key contributors to this increase?

It’s a combination of a few things. One: we brought in some new destinations. Second: I think the country’s tourism strategy in growing into markets is appealing to people, and they’re seeing the appeal of coming to Cyprus. And then third: some of the new destinations we connect Cyprus with, means airplanes fly both ways. We want to take Cypriots to places they want to go. If you look at the network we brought in, we’re connecting new and exciting places that are helping grow and stimulate new passenger lines. Our model is bringing the lowest cost we can, but we operate at the lowest cost possible, so we can bring the lowest fares to the market that stimulate more people who couldn’t travel before to get access to the service. You combine that with a tourism strategy from the island, that’s a great recipe to grow.

The pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas have posed significant challenges to air transport. How has Wizz Air navigated these repeated crises to achieve positive outcomes?

We like to say that every challenge is an opportunity. We’ve had quite a few opportunities in the last few years. We were very well positioned in our ability to react quickly to situations. As you pointed out we had COVID and we had the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Every time, what you see is a pretty consistent theme first; we react quickly to the situation. During COVID, that was reducing capacity where we couldn’t fly. In Ukraine, we had about 9% of our capacity that was touching Ukraine and Russia, and roughly within 90 days, we had shifted to fly to other destinations with that capacity instead of Ukraine and Russia. In Israel, we were about 6% of the capacity that was touching Israel, we were the largest non-Israeli airline flying there. Within 45 days, we reallocated all the capacity. We’re learning and getting better.

We were the first airline to get back to pre-COVID levels by volume. Today, we fly at 160% of the capacity, we operated pre-COVID. So we’re by far the fastest-growing airline post-COVID. You look at Israel; we’ll be relaunching our flights to Israel. We’re one of the first airlines going back in with some scale into Israel. And just to point out Cyprus has benefited from the growth and the opening of the base. That’s a great example of how to adapt to the situations.

What is the future of the industry, both short-term and long-term, keeping in mind the need to meet sustainability goals and cope with climate change?

It’s a good challenge for us as an industry. Let’s talk short-term. In the next few years, there is going to be a lot of investment by airlines, research partners and fuel companies. Everybody’s trying to find the new technology because ultimately, if you want to talk about hydrogen aircraft, whatever the technology is, fundamentally, the technology needs to get developed. That’s where there’s going to be a lot of different investments.

Beyond there, longer term, I think you’ll start to see more new technology. The hydrogen aircraft seems to be the development that would get there, but it’s still pretty far off. The fastest estimates were in 2035. But that’s probably a bit on the optimistic side if you look at the development cycle of aircraft, and how that’s going to work. So it’s going to be a while until we get that new technology aircraft. Fundamentally, that’s what you need to change; change the view on emissions.

Cyprus is keen to broaden its appeal to tourists from a wider range of countries, particularly within Europe, and appeared to have made progress in this regard during the 2023 tourist season. What do you think have been the main factors behind this success, and how could Cyprus further enhance its attractiveness as a tourist destination?

It’s part of what drew us to the market. We operate pretty much the same level all year round. A lot of airlines will vary their capacity from summer to winter by 20 to 30%. Most of our competitors do. That’s an important part of what we bring and part of what we like about Cyprus.

If you look at the destinations, the strategy of both the earth airport and the tourism ministry, is looking after new markets that can bring new volumes of passengers, not just connecting Cyprus to the UK with more. This is where we’ve brought a pretty good partnership to the table. You look at the footprint of what we’re bringing: We fly to London, but we also bring all of Central Eastern Europe across Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania to Bulgaria. We also bring service to the Western destinations. We have Rome, we have London and we have Paris.

On the season side, you’ve got a great strategy as a country. In the wintertime, you have a big push around golf and other winter-type destinations. The last time I was in Cyprus, people were outside, it was still decent weather. That mix of destinations and continuing to encourage more capacity to stay through the full season, combined with what you can go do in winter, it’s a great plan to go after and I think are on the right track and need to continue investing in that.

How do delays and rising ticket prices affect the industry and what are your plans to manage this?

Summer 2022 was very, very challenging from an operational perspective. The supply chain broke down on the ramp of airport security, and air traffic control and whenever that happens, the delays start to snowball. The downside, especially for Cyprus being so relatively far from Western Europe is you have to cross and fly over lots of airspace to get there. So your odds of getting one of those delayed is pretty high. Now, the supply chain is still not perfect. Ground handling is fixed, ATC is marginally better. But there’s still a challenge.

We’ve seen other challenges come into the supply chain; manufacturing challenges, with the Boeing issues, which doesn’t impact us but impacts others. You have the prices and the Pratt and Whitney engine issues which are impacting us. These create reliability challenges, where we have to think about how to how to mitigate these kinds of risks.

But I think what we’ve done, especially coming out of summer 2022, is we’ve said ‘look, we have to help ourselves when we can’t count on the supply chain to fix itself.’ So, part of what we did was to invest in the resilience of the schedule. We didn’t really change what we were operating just the way we did it. And we started some flights a little bit earlier and ended the day a little bit later. That allowed us to create some buffer to absorb things during the day. We took out a lot of what we call complex flying.

The problem was, if there is a disruption, you’re then forced to work out of hours. That triggers again, a snowball, where you have to bring other crew into backfill that disrupts everybody’s pattern. It’s that disruption and lack of stability, that gets to be frustrating for the crew that can’t plan their life. They feel they’re always on call. So we traded that theoretical efficiency for realistic efficiency and it paid off.

On the cost side, fares have gone up. That’s impacting everyone in the industry; you can see it in wage pressure, you can see it in fuel pricing. But we’re very focused on what we can do to make sure that we have the best operating plan we can, and we can bring the lowest fares possible to our customers.

Moreover, we invest in the best technology, which is not only amazing from a sustainability perspective, but it also lower costs. So we bring the best technology that keeps our fares lower, and we continue to look at ways to be more efficient.

What can passengers expect from Wizz Air in the future? Are there any plans for launching new routes?

We’re very excited about our performance to date. We carried 60 million passengers in 2023, we operated a fleet of around 180 aircraft. We’re now above 200 aircraft, we’re growing at 30 to 40 aircraft per year. What I see is continued growth coming to Cyprus. Now, we’ve had a temporary reduction due to the Pratt and Whitney engine issues, but I would expect us to restore aircraft soon and then continue growing, pretty consistently from there. I don’t want to give away all our plans, because my competitors would love to know my plans as well, but there are a lot of new destinations we could bring that are still unserved.

You’ve got Central Eastern Europe fairly well connected, though you could have more frequency which improves then the number of people who can come. In the West, you’ve still got relatively little coverage of Italy, which I think is a market to grow. You can also tap some more into the Northern and Western European countries, such as Belgium, Scandinavia and more of the UK as well. In the East, we’ve looked at markets, such as potentially Egypt, which could be an interesting market.

In the Middle East, we hope to restore the service of Saudi Arabia next winter.

We want to keep adding more frequencies where we’ve got them and also bringing some new destinations too. We want to keep growing the base consistently and continue building on our position as number one at Larnaca airport. in-cyprus.philenew

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