Wizz Air is plotting a multi-billion-pound expansion that could see it operating up to one in five flights from Gatwick within five years.
The Hungarian airline agreed a €3billion financing package in August and now hopes to expand its UK business by taking over airport slots from rival airlines after opening new bases at Gatwick and Doncaster Sheffield airport last week.
Owain Jones, UK boss of the no-frills airline, told The Mail on Sunday it wants to take over up to 20 of the around 110 take-off and landing slots at Gatwick from rivals.
Expansion plans: The Hungarian airline agreed a €3billion financing package in August
Wizz Air has been lobbying the Government to free up slots, saying the current regulations protect airlines with 'weak business models'.
Virgin Atlantic, BA, Norwegian and easyJet have either scaled back flights or withdrawn completely.
But Gatwick slots worth an estimated £1.5billion pre-Covid are blocked out until next March. This is due to a suspension of the usual 'use it or lose it' rule.
Jones said: 'Norwegian hasn't really been operating its base here and easyJet is operating a fraction of its fleet, so you have significant slot portfolios not being operated – and yet these slots remain tied up until the end of March.'
Jones said he sees an opportunity to reform the slot allocation system when oversight for the regulation shifts from Brussels to the UK in January as part of Brexit. He said airport slots should be 'national assets', and should be returned to a pool for redistribution if airlines cannot operate them for 80 per cent of each flying season.
He added: 'These slots are important for the economic recovery. Connectivity by air is going to be extremely important as we come out the other side, both of Covid-19 and post-Brexit. Those assets need to be used for the national good and made available for airlines that can afford to operate.'
Budapest-based Wizz Air – which set up its UK arm at Luton in 2018 as part of its Brexit contingency plans – accessed a £300million Bank of England Covid Corporate Financing Facility loan in April and has opened 12 new airport bases in Europe since April. Last week, it launched four new holiday routes from Gatwick to Lanzarote, Malta, Naples and Athens.
It has just one aircraft based at Gatwick, which Jones called a 'foot in the door', compared with 67 operated by easyJet – the airport's largest airline with 21million passengers flown in 2019 across 121 routes.
Jones said: 'We would like to continue to grow here. We'd certainly be looking to base more aircraft here and expand, if we could get the takeoff and landing slots.'
Wizz Air said it has not accessed its €3billion financing facility, which was arranged by a trio of investment banks. Its expansion will be funded by existing cash reserves – €1.6billion as of the end of June. 'We went into the crisis as one of, if not the best capitalised, airlines in Europe,' Jones said.
Wizz Air has 132 planes and more than 250 Airbus A320 and A321 planes on order over the next five to six years. 'Unlike other airlines, we haven't pushed aircraft deliveries back,' Jones said. 'We are now Airbus's largest single customer in terms of outstanding order-book.'
Its UK business got back to flying at 100 per cent capacity in August, and was able to take all its 400 UK staff off furlough. But the group is now filling only 50 per cent of seats as quarantine rules hit demand.
In September, it flew 1.6million passengers, down from 2.4million in August.