Wizz Air is to restart flights to Moscow through its Abu Dhabi joint venture, drawing warnings that a return to Russia risks reputational damage for the European low-cost airline.
Wizz Air Abu Dhabi will restart flights to and from the Russian capital on October 3. It suspended services following the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has been effectively cut off from flights to and from the UK and EU following a barrage of flight bans and sanctions after the war began in late February.
But the bans do not apply to Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, which is based in the Middle East and is a joint venture with ADQ, an Abu Dhabi state investment vehicle, which owns 51 per cent.
Wizz Air, which is based in Hungary and listed on the London Stock Exchange, said the resumption of flights would bring its Abu Dhabi airline into line with its major rivals in the Middle East such as Emirates and Etihad, which have not stopped flying to Russia.
But analysts warned of potential reputational damage that could outweigh the extra business.
“While we can see the commercial logic of this, we do feel that the optics look all wrong,” analysts at Goodbody said on Tuesday.
The stockbroker added that the additional flights would not “really change the dial” in terms of Wizz’s overall network or its flight plans going into this winter.
The decision could also complicate the retrieval of four Wizz Air planes that are still on the ground in Ukraine after becoming stuck following airspace closures around the time of Russia’s invasion.
Wizz Air was one of the carriers worst hit in Europe by airspace bans across Ukraine following the start of the war, with around 7 per cent of its scheduled capacity for summer 2022 originally flying to and from Ukraine, according to Moody’s.
The airline has expanded across Europe and into areas of Asia as part of an aggressive expansion plan that has quickly lifted it from its central European origins into a major player in European aviation.
“Wizz is growing its fleet rapidly and needs to deploy these aircraft . . . But I would think that there would be other destinations that could have been chosen other than Russia,” said Alex Paterson, an analyst at Peel Hunt.
“I don’t like the decision to fly to Russia and suspect that there may be some passengers that will avoid flying with them because of it,” he said.
In a statement, Wizz Air said its Abu Dhabi airline was restarting flights “to meet travel demand for passengers wishing to fly to and from Russia from the UAE capital”.
“Wizz Air Abu Dhabi is a national UAE carrier that operates in line with the UAE’s national regulations and policies,” it said, adding that its UK and Hungarian airlines were still not operating flights to Russia.
It’s all very ironic that the airline that offered thousands of free tickets to refugees at the beginning of the war is amongst the first to resume flying to the invaders country.
Before the invasion, 7% of Wizz capacity was on routes to and from Ukraine. I doubt that they will be as successful when flights resume to Ukraine.