INTERVIEW: Wizz Air UK Managing Director Owain Jones On Growth Plans
London Luton-based Wizz Air UK is seizing opportunities created by the COVID-19 downturn, with the rapid addition of two new UK bases at Doncaster Sheffield and London Gatwick this fall. Wizz Air UK managing director Owain Jones shared his outlook for the airline’s development.
You already serve five destinations from Gatwick and you’re adding another four with the new base. How do you plan to grow your Gatwick network, given slot restrictions at the airport?
We hope this is the start of a long-term relationship. We have grown at every other airport where we have a base, but there are slot constraints [at Gatwick]. We secured slots for one based aircraft from the [slot] pool, which will be starting in the winter season. But you're right that to be able to expand, we’re obviously looking at the slot opportunities from other carriers who have either said that they’re reducing their presence at Gatwick, or indeed pulling out completely. Then there’s the issue of the slot alleviation debate that’s ongoing at the moment. We believe that [slot-rule suspension] should not extend into winter. You could end up with Gatwick Airport being deprived of a significant number of its passengers. That obviously flows through into the local economy and more broadly into the UK’s economic recovery. We believe that these slots really are key to the national interest and they should be treated as national assets. If airlines are unable to operate them, then they should be made available to those who can.
Are you in negotiations with any other airlines in terms of slot leasing or in terms of slot acquisitions?
I can’t comment on any negotiations, whether they’re ongoing or not, but obviously we have an ideal opportunity. If those slots become available, then yes, we would certainly want to be looking at them.
You set up Wizz Air UK in preparation for the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit). Things are still uncertain there and now we’ve got the COVID crisis. Has that shifted plans for Wizz Air UK?
No. Wizz Air UK’s initial mission was to give Brexit contingency, which it has done. What we’ve been doing is looking at the ‘Britishness’ of Wizz Air UK, in terms of designations, so we are now designated to fly to Russia. We’ve restarted routes to Moscow and St. Petersburg and that’s something that we may look to do more of in future. It’s something we can bring to a unique market, bringing the Wizz product to those restricted markets. More generally, we’ve been looking at our offering throughout the UK. There are lots of opportunities. We were restricted before COVID-19 by aircraft availability. Even with 265 aircraft on order, we were spoilt for opportunity. With the [aircraft] capacity that’s been released from the system as we go through this recovery phase, we’re aiming to bring forward some of those opportunities. One of those opportunities was Doncaster Sheffield and another of those opportunities is Gatwick.
How many aircraft are you operating in the Wizz Air UK fleet at the moment?
We have 11 aircraft [two Airbus A320ceos, eight A321ceos, one A321neo] operating from Luton at the moment. We’ll be taking one aircraft [an A320ceo] to Doncaster and bringing another aircraft [an A321neo] down to Gatwick, so essentially 20% growth. It’ll be 12 overall, because one of the aircraft [an A321ceo] at Luton is a seasonal aircraft.
Do you have a vision of how large Wizz Air UK’s operation will become under your five-year strategy?
I have a vision—and I have a mission from my CEO. As a company, as a group, we are very rational. So, I have to fight for capacity against the other group airlines. But, certainly, we've seen resilience in the UK market, even through COVID-19. The Wizz Air cost base has presented opportunities that we've now taken advantage of. We've expanded our offering from the more traditional Central and Eastern European markets—that Wizz is known for—to very successfully operating from London Luton to Spain and the Greek islands in significant numbers this summer, so there is certainly a scalability to Wizz Air UK and that’s something I’ll continue to drive.
Are you able to share the numbers for that vision?
No, that’s not a number that I’d throw out there. We have 265 aircraft on order and I would like a significant number of those to come to Wizz Air UK.