The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Why I’d BAN short business class trips, by Wizz Air boss
That’s Wizz Air chief’s VERY provocative plan to cut carbon on short flights – and he’d let the worst polluters go BUST
AIRLINES, it’s fair to say, are going through a rough time. On top of the environmental backlash led by 17-yearold activist Greta Thunberg and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, domestic carrier Flybe has had to seek a highly controversial Government bailout and taxpayers funded the biggest ever peacetime repatriation of Britons when Thomas Cook went bust last autumn.
But despite these very public troubles for the industry, Wizz Air boss Jozsef Varadi is convinced air travel’s heyday is far from over.
In fact, the 54-year-old Hungarian says air travel can – and must – play a big part in the future of global business and leisure. The key is bosses waking up to rapidly changing attitudes among climate-conscious passengers – by cleaning up their act.
Varadi, who grew up in Hungary when it was controlled by the Soviets, has an extremely clear vision on what that should mean in practice. And it has nothing to do with the sort of overbearing state interference on air travel so often advocated by eco-warriors.
‘We need to look at how the whole industry operates in terms of technology and our processes to create something that is much more efficient,’ he explains.
The first step, he says, is improving air traffic control to minimise the amount of time airplanes spend in the sky. ‘Air navigation is a huge problem and that should be better managed,’ he says.
‘You come to Heathrow and almost without exception you will be put on hold [in the air]. And while you are circling around, you are burning fuel. So why can’t that be better coordinated?
‘And often air traffic controllers go on strike. Then we get rerouted, keeping the airplane in the air for up to half an hour extra. It just doesn’t make any sense and you are just polluting the environment for nothing.’
The second step – and perhaps most controversial – would be an all-out ban on business-class seats for short trips. Either that or punitive taxes to make them prohibitively expensive, says Varadi.
‘Why the hell do you have to fly business class for one hour or two hours in Europe?’ he says. ‘When you are on business class, your footprint is going to be two or three times larger than economy class. I would just simply ban that.’
And finally, he thinks the industry must start ploughing money into new technology. The holy grail for air travel would be electric engines for planes. It may seem like a long way off, but Varadi is confident it’s on the horizon. ‘We need to keep challenging ourselves as an industry, and push ourselves to find new technologies to reduce that [environmental] impact,’ he adds.
All of these efforts would be underpinned by new environmental standards for airlines. Varadi says there is currently no way to compare airlines’ environmental
‘I would welcome an initiative where you label airlines, so you know as a consumer what choice you are making,’ he says.
He says Wizz Air – a low-cost challenger to Ryanair – is one of the greenest airlines because it has young, fuel-efficient airplanes. ‘I want to make the claim that we have the lowest environmental impact. But we need some measurements to make that claim transparent to the market and consumers.’
Varadi’s view on climate change also reflects his disdain for the more established airlines – which he says have older, more polluting planes and out-of-date technology.
He strongly believes these companies should be allowed to go out of business to make room for younger rivals. So was it wrong for the UK Government to step in to save regional airline Flybe? Varadi doesn’t mince his words. ‘If an airline is not fit to compete, and is not fit to cover its financial obligations, that airline has to go out of business,’ he says. ‘It is a mistake by governments to intervene and unfortunately we are seeing more of that – the UK Government bailing out Flybe, the German government bailing out Condor. The market is a very strong force and it can sort things out. If you are an efficient player, then you are going to win, and if you are an inefficient player, you are going to go out of business.’
Varadi co-founded Wizz Air in 2003 and has built it into a FTSE250 company flying 40million customers a year, of which 10million come from the UK. It made profits of £247million on revenues of £2billion last year and surpassed Ryanair as the airline with the lowest operating costs in Europe.
Varadi’s attack on the Flybe bailout is even more significant given his past. After he left as chief executive of state-owned Malev Hunperformance. garian Airlines to set up Wizz Air, his former company went bust. Varadi says the collapse of Malev was for the best.
‘Four hours after Malev went bust, its rivals had put on more flights than had been lost by the collapse. This is how quickly the market reacts,’ he says. ‘Back then, Budapest airport had eight million passengers a year – now it is pushing 20million. The country benefited because the industry grew faster.’
Varadi’s staunch support for the powers of free market capitalism is personal. His father was thrown in jail for rising up against the Communists in the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and then received a lifetime ban on working in professional jobs.
He says: ‘My family had a tough life, and their circumstances were bad because of this. We had food to eat, but we had no luxuries in life. I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 26.’
But, he laughs, he’s been catching up ever since.