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Wizz Air Seeks Partner to Launch New Saudi Arabia LCC

Wizz Air is continuing its search for an investor-partner in Saudi Arabia to set up an airline similar to Wizz Air Abu Dhabi. But also the Airbus A321XLR creates good opportunities to the Hungary-based Low-Cost Carrier.

“We are looking at it, evaluating it, but we need to find an investment partner which wants to work with us,” Wizz Air President Robert Carey told me in Vienna earlier this week. “It should be a joint-venture structure to be a national airline.”

Wizz Air plans to launch 20 routes to Saudi Arabia from 11 European cities to ramp up its operations there. “Three routes will come in 2023,”

Wizz Air President Robert Carey

Saudi Arabia sees the growth of its aviation industry as an essential component of its Saudi Vision 2030 plan, a strategic framework to reduce the country’s dependence on oil revenue and diversify its economy. “If you look to the aspiration with the Vision 2030 target, the nation is trying to triple the number of passengers flying to 100 million,” Carey explained.

Carey noted that Wizz Air and Saudi Arabia share ambitions. “They (Saudi Arabia) talk about an 18% growth rate from today, our fleet plan growth is 18%,” he said. “So, we are very similar.”

Wizz Air Abu Dhabi

As for Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, which was launched in January 2021, there are four aircraft based there at present. “The carrier is operating around 30 routes and we will go to eight aircraft during the winter,” Carey said. “Our latest routes announcement has been about flights [from Abu Dhabi] to the Maldives and Kazakhstan. More markets are coming in, like Pakistan.”

Wizz Air Abu Dhabi could operate about 50 aircraft in the future. The Wizz Air Group itself has targeted a fleet of 500 aircraft by the end of the decade. “About 100 to 125 aircraft are dedicated to the East [from Eastern Europe eastward], where Abu Dhabi would be a core,” Casey said.

Regarding traffic rights from Abu Dhabi, as it is not an open-skies market, Carey said it is more complicated, and Wizz Air continues to learn. As a result, Carey says the airline must think about how to approach bilateral markets “to ensure we get access.”

Carey also sees room to grow for Wizz Air in Africa, mainly as flights to North African and West African destinations from Italy or Abu Dhabi. Carey said an issue for opening up traffic to the continent is that “most nations are bilateral-restricted.”

Regarding the Russia-Ukraine war and closed Russian airspace, both markets represented 7% of Wizz Air´s total capacity. However, due to the closed Russian airspace, some routes have been suspended, such as Budapest-Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan and Warsaw-Abu Dhabi.

Wizz Air Abu Dhabi launch

Tough Winter Ahead

Looking ahead, Carey expects a tough winter. “No doubt there will be high fuel prices, economic downturns, and inflation,” he said. “Consumers have become very cost-sensitive.”

Revenues will be under pressure as customers pursue more cost-effective deals, he added. “That suits us very well, as we are lower-cost providers, being the airline with the lowest costs in Europe,” Carey said. “There have been other crises, but we know the playbook.”

A321XLR Going East, Not West

Robert told me, that Wizz Air expects to take delivery of its first Airbus A321XLR in 2024, with plans to operate the type mainly on routes to the Middle East and Central Asia.

“We have 47 A321XLRs on order, and we are pretty excited about it“, he said. “We see the aircraft primarily going to the East, not West.”

Carey says Wizz Air is not interested in joining the transatlantic market right now, as the Budapest-based ULCC sees a lot of untapped opportunities in the Eastern Hemisphere, “especially from the end of our network, for example [routes] from the U.K. to the Middle East, which are beyond range [of the current fleet].”

Operating the A321XLR will allow flights from the U.K. to Pakistan or Central Asian destinations such as cities in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, where there is an increasing amount of connectivity, the Wizz Air president notes.

With subsidiary Wizz Air Abu Dhabi operating the A321XLR, “you could go almost all the way to South Africa or Singapore, creating huge network opportunities. There is no shortage of markets with this aircraft,” Carey explains.

He views the transatlantic market differently. “Transatlantic is very hard to crack, as we have seen with Norwegian. The Big Three [European legacy] airline groups—Lufthansa, IAG, Air France-KLM—can crush you easily with their joint ventures.”

Wizz Air also operates one A330F for the Hungarian government, which could be used on North Atlantic routes. “It is not even a market we are regularly serving now,” he says. “We don’t have an operating permit ... for flights to the U.S.” 

In late July, the U.S. Transportation Department rejected an application by Wizz Air for a foreign-air-carrier permit, citing “safety oversight.”

Wizz Air takes delivery of first Airbus A321neo

Carey says the A321neo has become especially crucial for Wizz Air. “It is our primary aircraft and we have already 65 in the fleet,” he says. “Talking about operational costs, there are 239 seats in the A321neo. When we compare them to our A321ceo, the neo gives us a 20-25% reduction in cost basis.”

Around 90% of the Wizz Air Group’s new aircraft deliveries will be A321neos. There also are some A320neos on order, which will be needed for operating from short runways, for example from Dortmund, Germany, with a 2,000 m (1.2 mi.) runway.

Wizz Air operates 165 aircraft on a total of more than 1,000 routes to 52 countries. “By next summer, we will have 190 to 195 aircraft in our fleet depending on Airbus delivery schedules,” Carey predicts.

Carey says the Wizz Air Group transported 42 million passengers before the COVID-19 pandemic. “We expect 55 million passengers this year.” The Wizz Air Group includes Wizz Air UK, Wizz Air Hungary, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and, starting in October, Wizz Air Malta. Starting Dec. 5, all Vienna-based aircraft will be the transferred to Maltese registry.

The LCC has contracts in place to grow its fleet to 379 aircraft by fiscal 2028 and expects 500 aircraft by the end of the decade, Carey explains. “Half of that fleet could be registered in Malta,” he says.

I met Carey in Vienna where he announced the increase of Vienna based-aircraft to five from four A321neos by December. Wizz Air offers 37 routes to 24 countries from Vienna. Three new destinations from Vienna will be Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira archipelago, and Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah and Riyadh. Frequencies will be increased as well on some existing routes.