Wizz Air chief hits out at UK quarantine plan for air passengers


Britain’s determination to press ahead with a quarantine for airline passengers is pointless and unnecessarily “harsh”, given that the country remains one of the worst hit in Europe by coronavirus, according to József Váradi, chief executive of one of Europe’s fastest growing airlines, Wizz Air.

“It is an extreme measure and I am not sure how much it serves a purpose as . . . other countries are better than the UK. There are other ways,” said Mr Váradi, as he announced a sharp jump in annual profits, struck largely before the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

For example, many countries were demanding health certificates to prove the traveller had been virus free for 72 or more hours, he said. Britain’s approach was “very harsh”.

The UK government was preparing on Wednesday to set out its quarantine rules, which are likely to include proposals for so-called “air bridges” — exemptions for passengers coming from certain countries deemed to be lower risk. 

The quarantine is controversial, with the UK’s £22bn a year aviation industry warning it will add to the crisis that has already led to airlines seeking emergency government loans to survive the near universal collapse in air travel. The hospitality industry has said it could put 1.2m jobs at risk.

Many countries, particularly in southern Europe, are racing to ease restrictions ahead of the peak summer holiday season to minimise the impact on their tourism industries.

Mr Váradi said air bridges were “certainly better than nothing” but Britain’s decision to impose a quarantine ran directly counter to the behaviour of most European countries.

“All other countries are now easing in continental Europe,” he said. “If you want to travel you can and it will get easier and easier going forward.”

Mr Váradi said June would be the turning point for European air travel, with ” a lot of regulators . . . removing barriers”. The UK, however, would be the odd one out, by “going into reverse”.

Wizz Air was one of the first European carriers to declare its intention to return to the air in a meaningful way after a near global grounding of the world’s passenger fleet in late March. 

Mr Váradi said Wizz Air intended to stimulate demand with lower prices and it would seek opportunities to expand its route network into new countries as other, weaker airlines were forced to cut back by the crisis. In recent days Wizz Air has announced several new routes and three new bases in Europe.

Encouraging passengers back on to aircraft would come at a cost, however. Mr Váradi expected fares could fall as much as 10-20 per cent across the industry. The group warned it did not expect “a positive development” on available seat kilometres — a measure of capacity — or profit margins in 2021.

But there was pent-up demand, he insisted. The airline was already flying about 10 per cent of its normal capacity and initial signs were encouraging. In Bulgaria the carrier was back to 55 per cent of capacity and on average its aircraft were 70 per cent full. 

A survey completed by the airline showed that two-thirds of passengers were ready to return to flying within six months and one-third wanted to travel in the next two months.

“I am not saying demand will be the same as in 2019 but it is substantial,” he said.

Wizz intended to expand its available seat capacity by 9 per cent this year. There would be no deferrals or cancellations of the airline’s more than 200 aircraft orders, he insisted. 

Wizz intended to run about 70 per cent of its flights in July and August, subject to an easing of travel restrictions.

Mr Váradi’s comments came as Wizz Air announced a 128 per cent jump in pre-tax profit to €294.1m for the fiscal year ended on March 31, just as the full impact of coronavirus hit Europe’s airline industry. Revenues jumped by 19 per cent to €2.8bn. Underlying net profit rose by nearly 30 per cent to €344.8m, excluding a charge of €63.7m for discontinued fuel hedges. 

There was no dividend. Basic earnings per share rose from 1.69p to 3.76.

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