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ATW Editor's Blog

Wizz CEO’s attack on premium cabins is a sustainability red herring

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The CEO and co-founder of Budapest LCC Wizz Air has issued a statement calling for all airlines to ban premium cabins on flights of less than five hours.

Jozsef Varadi’s “industry call to arms to eliminate flying business class” is, on the surface, about emissions. His argument is that premium cabins—which provide more space per person than in economy cabins—are ecologically indefensible.

“Business class should be banned. These passengers account for twice the carbon footprint of an economy passenger, and the industry is guilty of preserving an inefficient and archaic model. A rethink is long overdue, and we call on fellow airlines to commit to a total ban on business class travel for any flight of [under] five hours,” Varadi says in a press release.

The release then gives a plug for Wizz, saying it operates “the lowest CO2 emissions per passenger amongst all competitor airlines and is expecting to reduce this by 30% for every passenger in the next 10 years.”

If that’s a somewhat brazen marketing attempt to attract passengers based on Wizz’s “greenness”, so be it. But it’s not a viable—or even sensible—solution for making the global air transport industry more sustainable.

Varadi’s finger jab at airlines that offer a choice of cabins and service levels was likely a response to Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr’s remarks earlier this year when he cast European LCCs (and big Lufthansa Group competition) as the eco bad boys because their rock-bottom fares are “economically, ecologically irresponsible.”

It’s fair game for the leader of any company to diss the competition, but airlines shouldn’t turn sustainability into a marketing battle anymore than they do safety.

The recent public scrutiny of airlines and carbon emissions needs an industry-wide response that delivers real facts and viable solutions. Getting rid of LCCs or premium cabins is no more the answer than hitching a ride on a solar-powered yacht for your overseas travel.

Varadi and Spohr are among this industry’s smartest leaders. Wizz has just posted a record first-half profit despite higher fuel costs. And part of that success story is its growth and all the Eastern Europeans flying for the first time because airlines like Wizz make air transport affordable. Wizz carried more than 22 million passengers in the first six months of 2019—a 20% increase over the same period in 2018. Wizz didn’t even exist 17 years ago.

Which business model is more ecologically questionable—an LCC that adds hundreds more flights and millions more passengers to the system, albeit in all-economy cabin, or a full-service carrier offering customer service options?

Varadi acknowledges the real answer at the end of his airline’s press release when he says, “The industry as a whole needs to be more aggressive in its ambitions if we are truly to make a difference.”

Yes, aggression as an industry collective on reducing emissions. Not aggression to each other to score sustainability points.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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