Rapidly growing Wizz Air is already the biggest airline in Eastern Europe. Now its sights are set on the West, and low-cost rival Ryanair is taking heed.
In terms of human capital, Wizz has been ramping up quickly: Last year it recruited 1,000 new employees, double what it hired the year before. In February it broke ground on a new training facility for the additional 1,400 cabin crew it will need next year. As a low-cost airline, Wizz intends to rival Europe’s cheapest carrier, Ryanair, heating up another front in airline competition.
Headed by CEO Michael O’Leary since 1994, Ryanair is Europe’s biggest carrier by scheduled passengers carried, and just a hair behind Lufthansa in total number of scheduled and chartered passengers. Its rise is attributed to O’Leary’s strategy of adapting the low-cost, no-frills model originated by America’s Southwest Airlines. Ryanair’s low-cost rivals in Western Europe, chiefly the U.K.’s easyJet and Norwegian, have not been able to match its low cost base. Analysts predict that Wizz will, on the basis of cost for each “available seat kilometre”, accounting for distance flown, as well as the record profits the Hungarian airline reported in May.
Wizz is growing strategically in Ryanair’s main Western European hubs, such as London. Founder and Chief Executive Jozsef Varadi says that expanding across the continent has been Wizz’s aim all along, beginning with its first Eastern-to-Western Europe flight, from Poland to the U.K., in 2004. Wizz has already benefitted greatly from the flow of migrants and tourists on these routes, increasing its passenger numbers from 14m in 2014 to more than 28m last year.
Recent turbulence at Ryanair could also give Wizz a boost in the airline competition. The Irish carrier is struggling to find enough cheap labour, and was forced to cancel 20,000 flights due to a pilot shortage last September. Following last year’s pilot strikes, the airline is again under threat by trade unions. Ryanair has also had its share of bad press: In April it was cited as having the worst gender pay gap in the airline industry. As The Economist reports, Varadi thinks the time is right for Wizz to start flying within Western Europe, starting with Ryanair’s biggest market: the U.K. In May it launched a British unit to fly new routes within the region.
Though Wizz is a growing threat to Ryanair, it shares similar roots. The Hungarian airline’s biggest backer, Bill Franke of private-equity firm Indigo Partners, was one of Ryanair’s early investors. Just as Ryanair modelled itself after Southwest, Wizz was cast in the same mould as Ryanair – but it has gone farther, offering even lower fares and tacking on more extra charges. Both airlines need to keep staff costs low, but Wizz has an advantage, as labour costs in Hungary are amongst the lowest in the EU.
Ryanair does have advantages of its own, mainly its size and established status, which lower its cost of aircraft ownership. Also, Wizz is not catching Ryanair off guard, as the company had the foresight early on to plan for another airline competing on cost. It plans to use its established position in the airline industry to sell more high-margin extras such as hotel bookings and car hire. Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs envisions broad diversification making Ryanair’s website the “Amazon of travel”. Clearly Wizz is keeping its Irish counterpart on its toes.