Hungary's Wizz Air takes off
Updated 02:12, 13-May-2020
Isobel Ewing in Budapest

Europe's aviation industry is beginning to show signs of recovery, as Budapest-based Wizz Air became the first airline on the continent to resume flights since COVID-19 devastated the sector.

European airlines grounded most of their fleets in March after travel restrictions were put in place to stop the spread of the virus.

But now, as the public grows restless after eight weeks in lockdown and with summer approaching, Wizz Air says its survey shows many have itchy feet.

"Two-thirds of people are saying they want to go somewhere, they want to fly somewhere in the next six months and 25 percent are saying they want to go in the next one to two months," Jozsef Varadi, the company's CEO, tells CGTN Europe.

Wizz Air has made masks compulsory for staff and passengers, got rid of food services and the in-flight magazine, and is distributing free hand sanitizer.

Varadi disputes the notion that planes are a high-risk environment for catching the virus: "Flying is predominantly a very safe way of traveling, the quality of air circulation aboard the aircraft is very high – it is comparable with the intensive care unit of a hospital."

Briitsh Airways planes are being used to fly Personal Protective Equipment to the UK during the lockdown// CGTN

Briitsh Airways planes are being used to fly Personal Protective Equipment to the UK during the lockdown// CGTN

While flights may have resumed, travelers are scarce.

Barbara Gorman was the sole passenger waiting in Budapest's terminal on Tuesday.

"I was sleeping in the car on the way down and when the driver pulled up I looked and there's nobody, nothing, not a car, not a person," she says.

Gorman lives in Hungary but has injured her leg and is unable to get medical care, so she's heading back to the U.S. to stay with family.

"My family will be happy, because they thought I was going be in these crowded airports and bringing home some coronavirus or something," Gorman adds.

She doesn't know when she will be able to return to Hungary.


EU's 'missed opportunity' 

Varadi says the EU missed an opportunity to have a centrally coordinated effort against COVID-19. And, as a result, countries have a mix of different restrictions in place, which is confusing for consumers booking flights.

"It's a complete mess, it's very chaotic. It's difficult to understand what's going on," he says. 

"That is the purpose of the European Union, it's an issue affecting all the people irrespective of the countries. It should've been coordinated from a central standpoint."

While demand will return, it is thought by industry observers that many airlines won't survive.

However, Varadi is confident in Wizz Air's future: "We started this pandemic with 1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion) of cash on hand, making us one of the most resilient businesses in the industry. So, we're going to go through this even if we are grounded for 20 months from now. We will still be in business unlike many other airlines."

READ MORE: France set to impose 14-day quarantine for travelers 

After laying off thousands of staff, British Airways says the UK's proposal to quarantine overseas arrivals will inflict fresh damage.

Meanwhile, Germany's Lufthansa plans to operate 21 percent of its capacity from June, and Ireland's Ryanair 40 percent from July.

Wizz Air is hoping to benefit from COVID-19's aftermath.

"Most of industry will be on its knees, airports are begging for gross capacity, countries' markets are begging for airline growth and I think we are one of the few players who can actually deliver the growth," Varadi says.

According to Varadi, Wizz Air will see demand return to normal in a year.

"The good news is we know from history that people's memory tends to be fairly short. So life will move on," the CEO says.

He sees the main problem being the restrictions imposed by governments on flights and people's movements – and the uncertainty surrounding when they may change.

"We are operational to 45 countries and out of the 45 there are no two countries that have the same set of measures in place."

He says point-to-point low-cost airlines like Wizz Air will recover faster than those that provide a higher-quality service and offer long-haul flights.

"The aviation industry is reflecting the lack of liquidity," Varadi says. "Some are bailed out by respective governments and, as a result, those airlines are safe, but not necessarily for the long run.

"I think this is more like a short-term survival, six to 12 months, and airlines that aren't resilient and are not government-owned will go bust."


Check out The Pandemic Playbook, CGTN Europe's major investigation into the lessons learned from COVID-19