In the local vernacular, they call the likes of Wizz Air “fapados”, literally a “wooden bench” airline. But the Hungarian budget carrier has beaten bigger, sometimes more voluble, rivals in securing rights to cheap flights from Vienna, starting in April.
News last month that Wizz Air is to set up a base in Vienna with three Airbus aircraft operating by the end of the year resulted in a modest ripple in general news rooms - mostly comprising copy-paste reports of the press release in the digital media.
Starting with one A320 in April - linking Vienna with Gdansk (Poland), Tuzla (Bosnia), and Varna (Bulgaria) - the “wooden bench” Hungarian carrier will add two stretched-fuselage A321s by November, providing the Austrian capital with a total of 69 flights per week on 17 new routes ranging from Thessaloniki and Tel Aviv to Bergen, Dortmund, Rome and Valencia.
In the grand scheme of Central East European aviation, this development may not appear especially significant. True, Wizz Air reports that the establishment of the base will directly create 120 new jobs and represents an investment of USD 331 million - not the kind of sum any company throws around without thought. But even if all were occupied, the addition of 450,000 extra seats in and out of Schwechat this year (the total Wizz capacity) will add just 1.8% to the airport’s expected 25 million total passenger count for 2018.
Yet the Wizz Air move is more significant than mere numbers suggest: indeed, as József Váradi, the carrier’s chief executive, told the Budapest Business Journal, Vienna Airport has been less than enthusiastic in welcoming budget carriers to its terminals (see sidebar for the Ryanair view).
“I can tell you that the first time we had discussions with Vienna Airport was over ten years ago. We were very unwelcome at that time,” Váradi says.
Back then, Wizz Air was looking to fill the void left by Sky Europe, which collapsed in 2009 after pioneering bargain-basement flights in the region from 2001.
More recently, Vienna Airport has clearly had second thoughts on budget carriers.
“The airport has become more flexible.… and, as a result, finally we were able to come up with an agreement which makes sense for us,” Váradi says, adding, with a chuckle, “It took them ten years, but they’ve come round, yes.”
What exactly “makes sense” is not revealed: neither Austria in general, nor Vienna Airport in particular, is famed for a low-cost business environment, and Váradi, implying room to maneuvre is limited on all sides, merely says: “We look at cost-of-living differences, and we will make some minor adjustments”.
However, since Wizz Air already boasts Austrian pilots on its books, its employment rates and conditions are clearly attractive to some.
It is also clear that with 282 new planes due for delivery between now and 2026 (Wizz currently operates “just” 88 aircraft) it is eyeing further expansion at Vienna in the immediate future, and from regional Austrian airports in the medium- to long-term.
“We are looking at [this] announcement as a start, and we hope to bring more news to the market fairly shortly, sort of as a continuum,” Váradi said.
But at just 140 miles from the Hungarian capital and less than half that from the western Hungarian city of Győr, could developments at Vienna threaten growth at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport - where low-cost carriers helped boost passenger numbers by 14.5% to a record 13.1 million last year?
“Not significantly” says László Kurucz, spokesperson for Ferenc Liszt operator Budapest Airport. “Theoretically, pax [passengers] can take the train from Vienna to Budapest, but taking into consideration that the available fares are very competitive from BUD [airport] and it would increase the duration of the journey, we do not expect significant number of pax loss,” he told the BBJ.
Wizz Air reported a record 7.1 million passengers, a 24.3% increase, for the three months up to December 31, the company’s fiscal third quarter. Profit for the period was a record EUR 14 million euros, up 3.6%. Load factors – the percentage of seats occupied - increased 1.4 percentage points to 89.4%. Wizz said traffic had been boosted by the collapse of the U.K.’s Monarch Airlines group.
A little under two years ago, at the end of a long interview over dinner in Budapest, your correspondent asked Kenny Jacobs, Chief Marketing Officer for Ryanair, to name a wish: “Which airport in this region would you like to see cut their fees - a 25% discount - if you could have one choice?”
The ebullient Jacobs is a journalist’s dream: brought up in Cork, closer to Blarney Castle than the average tarmac trek to a Ryanair 737, this master of marketing (the man behind the Irish budget carrier’s “Always getting better” campaign) is rarely quiet. But this question produced a full eight seconds of deeply pondered silence.
“Could I take... all the Austrian ones?” he quizzed back, quickly adding by way of justification, “Geographically, it’s in this region!”
Jacobs had clearly been eyeing potential destinations in Hungary’s western neighbor, but, frustratingly, all to no avail. Its airports, he said, are “just too expensive for any airline to grow in. Not even low-cost [carriers].”
Wizz Air’s move into Vienna is therefore a more notable expansion than might appear at first sight.
When asked if Ryanair would respond to its rival’s entry into the Austrian market, spokesperson Robin Kiely responded: “We are always interested in new airports and routes, including in Austria, which are dependent on demand, available aircraft capacity, a viable airport deal and our required operational needs being met.”
Ryanair later stated on January 15 that it had contacted the Austrian administrators of Niki Luftfahrt GmbH - the legal owner of the assets of defunct Austrian carrier Lauda Air - and “expressed its interest in participating in the insolvency process and the potential purchase of remaining Niki assets”. Those assets include landing and take-off slots at Vienna airport. Ryanair may yet strike back.