Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air is repatriating citizens and transporting medical equipment for east European governments, in a move coupling one-off charter traffic with savvy government relations amid the coronavirus crisis.
Wizz Air is one of several airlines involved in the largest peacetime repatriation effort in Europe as travel firms turn their attention from tourists to serving governments. “We try to do the right thing,” Wizz Air Chief Executive Jozsef Varadi told Reuters. “Yes, governments and other institutions pay for the flights, but this is not the time to make a profit … The most important issue here is to help.”
Wizz charged passengers $880 on one repatriation flight from the United States, with the Budapest government picking up the rest of the tab and securing onboard meals.
The carrier is deploying 10 percent of its fleet and 200 staff in the effort, which included its first ever transatlantic flights as Airbus jets acquired to serve Europe’s tourist boom zig-zagged across the United States and stopped in Iceland for fuel.
Hungary’s nationalist government has given Wizz Air ample publicity for the repatriation, featuring the airline in videos and media appearances and infusing it with patriotic appeals. “Home is here,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto posted on Facebook alongside a video of the repatriation of hundreds of people from the United States, showing Wizz planes against the setting sun with a soundtrack of romantic music.
As a six-plane Wizz fleet flew back from China, Szijjarto met with Varadi and told the businessman: “You play a key role here … in more ways than one.”
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Tim Hepher and David Holmes)