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Building Air Bridges Eastward

Air travel issues like congestion and delays are not going to go away; in fact, they are becoming more severe in particular in Western Europe. This is one reason why Wizz Air, the largest low-cost airline in Central and Eastern Europe is focusing more on the East. Helpfully, the airline’s eastern opening also coincides with national economy interests.

József Váradi, CEO of Wizz Air (left) and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó (right) at the joint press conference.

Flight delays, cancellations, long waits at airports are all becoming an everyday routine for frequent fliers. But, according to József Váradi, CEO of Wizz Air, the largest low-cost airline in the CEE by share, it is not always the airlines that are to blame.  

“We are investing significant human resources to reduce our exposure but we aren’t immune to those,” Váradi said at a recent press event. “We need to prepare for [dealing with] delays and cancellations”, he added.  

Váradi was responding to reporters’ questions at an event where he and Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, announced a new Wizz Air destination and more frequent flights to an existing one, both in Eastern Europe. That they made the announcement together should not come as a surprise.  

“In a country where there is no state-owned airline, it is important to have a pragmatic cooperation with airlines that support the achievement of national interests,” Szijjártó noted.  

One of those interests the minister highlighted was regular contact with expat Hungarian communities; this goal will be better served by a daily flight to Târgu Mureș (known to Hungarians as Marosvásárhely) in Transylvania as of this October.

As a result, annual passenger numbers will grow to 132,000 from 38,000.  

Increasing Trade

The other is related to economy and exports. “Rapid and efficient connections in a foreign trade-focused country always help increase trade volumes,” Szijjártó added, announcing a new route to Kazan in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. The flight will operate on Wednesdays and Sundays from the end of October, Szijjártó said.

That Wizz Air is turning its eyes eastwards is hardly a surprise either. Considering high traffic and growing airport fees (one result of which is the highly-criticized barn-like waiting area for low cost airlines at Budapest Airport), it makes sense to go east.  

Both the launch of the Kazan flight, the airline’s third Russian destination after Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and the daily flight to Marosvásárhely, will further strengthen Hungary’s business and cultural ties, according to Váradi.  

They will definitely strengthen Wizz Air’s business position as well. Rising congestion at many popular business and tourist routes in Western Europe is making flight delays and cancellations ever more common.  

“Over-tourism” and the old technologies used to control air traffic both account for that, Váradi says, so, rather than having to share a smaller portion of the market, Wizz Air’s strategy is to go east.  

“We initiate the launch of ever more eastern flights,” the CEO said. “Europe is running into bottlenecks in terms of Western European flights. Eastern Europe, on the other hand, is an uncharted market. We continually try and add more eastern destinations to our network and are happy to have been able to announce Kazan among our newest destinations.”

Diplomatic Support

It is not a quick process, however; talks about a direct flight between Budapest and Kazan first started in 2015, and the two countries had to modify their bilateral air traffic agreement, the minister said. The state provided diplomatic support to create the legal framework for the flight, the operation of which was won by Wizz Air in a state tender. Permits for the airline to operate the flight were issued by the Russian party this July.

Of all EU member states, only Hungary has a consulate in Kazan, which opened in 2015. It is not by chance: there is a very strong business cooperation between Hungary and the Tatarstan Republic as 20% of Russian oil imports for Hungarian oil company MOL comes from Tafneft, Szijjártó said. A direct air connection will also serve those mostly agricultural companies that are already present in the area and export livestock, plant seed and grafts.  

Szijjártó also mentioned the West Balkan routes operated by Wizz Air, again via a public service contract, and which now operate with state support. The launch of these routes in 2017 were questioned by many given that neither tourism nor business demand seems high.  

“The West Balkan project stands exactly where we intended it to be when we launched them,” Váradi said answering reporters’ questions.

“If broken down by destinations the results are slightly mixed but overall they meets the expectations with flights operating with a load factor over 90%,” he added.   

National interests will likely keep playing a role in determining at least some of Wizz Air’s new destinations.  

“Since increasing the number of connections is in Hungary’s economic and political interests, where there is a chance, we will cooperate with Wizz Air in the future as well,” Szijjártó concluded.