ULTRA LOW-COST

Wizz Air expands cheap flights in Mideast, pledges better service

Offering fares at half the price of competitors, Wizz executives acknowledge past problems with on-time performance, but say the business is booming

David Cannon/Getty Images

A Wizz Air Airbus 320 on approach to Abu Dhabi International Airport

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – At $157 for a round-trip ticket, Wizz Air’s three-hour flights between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv last April were less than half the cost of FlyDubai, El Al and other competitors.

Passengers, however, were crammed into some of the narrowest seats in the industry, flights were habitually late and extra charges piled up for luggage, food and legroom. In February, Wizz Air was rated the U.K.’s worst airline by a consumer organization in terms of boarding, cabin environment and seat comfort.

The Budapest-based carrier’s executives acknowledge the shortcomings and say they’re trying to improve on-time schedules and customer service. At the same time, they suggest that passengers know what they’re getting with the airline’s “ultra low-cost” model – similar to RyanAir, easyJet and Spirit Airlines – and business has never been better.

“I’m actually not too worried about how we are performing,” Johan Eidhagen, managing director of Wizz Air’s Abu Dhabi-based Mideast division, told The Circuit. “But I do understand that, of course, a lot of skepticism comes around being low-cost, of how you can achieve [better service]. And that’s the challenge.”

The airline, which was established as a Hungarian company in 2003, flies to 54 countries and operates 183 aircraft. Its lead investor is Indigo Partners, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based private equity firm that also owns controlling stakes in the U.S. carrier, Frontier Airlines, and Chile’s JetSmart. 

Over the last few years, Wizz has increased flights to the Gulf, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The airline said in March that it plans to increase its fleet to 200 aircraft this year and 500 by 2030. The Mideast subsidiary, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, is a joint venture between Wizz Air Holdings and ADQ, a government-owned Abu Dhabi investment company, which owns 51% of the airline. Eidhagen is a Swedish native who joined Wizz Air as a marketing executive in 2015 and previously worked for Nokia.

In July, the U.K’s Civil Aviation Authority said it had received hundreds of complaints about Wizz Air’s failure to reimburse passengers after flight cancellations and delays. It said the airline committed to complying with reimbursement regulations.

Alannah Travers, a communications specialist in the U.K., said she still hasn’t been reimbursed for a  flight she booked and then canceled to the Canary Islands in 2019. Getting any response from the airline’s telephone switchboard required more than an hour on hold. “Technically, I’ve never flown with them, but [the airline has] terrible customer service,” Travers said. Nadine Knotzer, an art gallery owner in Dubai, said high fees for luggage and seat selection on a London to Vienna flight made Wizz Air’s prices more expensive than she expected from a budget airline. “There is nothing cheap about this,” she said.

On the other hand, Salwa Azzam, a magazine editor in Dubai, said she found flying with Wizz Air delightful. “The team on board was incredibly friendly and attentive,” she said. “What surprised me the most was how affordable the tickets were without compromising on the quality of the flight.”

Eidhagen said Wizz Air’s priorities are passenger safety, low prices and on-time performance. “If we can deliver those three most important things,” he said, “then I think we have a strong and good airline.”

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