Wizz Air defies a threatened boycott

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Low-fare carrier Wizz Air announced on Thursday that it’s opening a new base in the central Norwegian city of Trondheim, defying an expanding boycott against it. The airline is also doubling its planned number of domestic routes in Norway, before even getting off the ground.

Wizz Air plans to start flying seven new domestic routes from Trondheim in December, and claims it’s had a good response from the market, if not from political leaders, labour unions and their thousands of members. PHOTO: Wizz Air

Wizz founder and CEO József Váradi conceded that his airline hasn’t received a warm welcome in Norway, after several trade union federations announced boycotts that even Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg publicly supported. Nearly all the political parties in Parliament have denounced the airline because of its policies against organized labour.

“I wouldn’t call it an invitation to marriage,” Váradi said when asked about the airline’s reception at a digital press conference on Thursday. He added that he wasn’t feeling very loved in Norway right now.

He’s nonetheless expanding on the airline’s announcement earlier this month that it intended to launch domestic routes from Oslo in early November. Then came news that fares would be as low as NOK 199 (USD 22) each way, followed by sabre-rattling from the trade union federations and organizations representing both pilots and flight attendants. It didn’t take long for federations including YS, Industri Energi, Lederne and Nito to urge their thousands of members not to fly with Wizz Air, because the airline has a history of discouraging and even blocking labour organizations.

On Friday, the county of Nordland also declared that it doesn’t want its public sector employees to travel on Wizz Air.

Employees fired after starting a union in Romania
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported this week on the case of flight attendant Mircea Constantin, who joined other unhappy Romanian Wizz Air employees in forming a union. Constantin had worked for Wizz Air for seven years, from 2007 to 2014.

“When we informed Wizz Air that we had started a union, we were invited to a conversation with management,” Constantin told DN. “We were told that unions are not part of the company’s culture and that we should reevaluate how we communicated with the company.”

He claims they were further told to dissolve the union within seven days, to avoid any further consequences. The employees refused. “Eight days later I was fired, and two days after that the others were pressured into signing statements that they’d resigned from the union,” Constantin told DN. A total of 19 employees were eventually fired along with him.

The European Transport Workers Federation (ETF) took the matter to court against Wizz Air and the employees eventually prevailed. In 2016 Constantin was rehired but, he claims, at base pay of just EUR 400 a month and without being called in for flights. He was later among the roughly 1,000 Wizz Air employees terminated during the Corona crisis. ETF is now reportedly suing to reverse the dismissals.

A Wizz Air spokesperson told DN that the airline couldn’t comment on specific personnel cases but they denied the situation as described. “Wizz Air respects the employees’ rights, including the right to organize,” according to the airline’s  statement.

‘Hypocritical’
Constantin applauded the boycott threats and Prime Minister Solberg’s statements in Parliament last week that she wouldn’t fly on an airline that doesn’t have proper labour agreements with its employees. He warned, however, that if Wizz Air gets a foothold in Norway’s domestic market, at a time when all three other airlines SAS, Norwegian Air and Widerøe have had to slash staff and ground aircraft, “it will be a catastrophe for Scandinavia. They’ll take social dumping into Norway and then to Sweden and Denmark.”

CEO Váradi hasn’t denied his opposition to organized labour, claiming that his airline instead has a culture of “dialogue within the company.” He rejected the involvement of any “third-parties,” like labour unions, but claimed the airline will pay “market rates” to its workers. He also claimed on Thursday that he and other Wizz officials were “very glad” about the “response from the market and consumers.”

Norway’s own huge sovereign wealth fund, known as the Oil Fund, has also been among investors in Wizz Air, with holdings valued at a reported NOK 631 million. That has led some commentators in Norway to question all the criticism of Wizz Air: “It could be called a double standard, or even hypocritical,” wrote Lars West Johnsen in newspaper Dagsavisen last weekend. “We say one thing, but do something else.”

Big plans with ‘cheap flights’
The airline founded in Hungary and now based in Switzerland is mounting an aggressive entry into the Norwegian market, already expanding beyond its initially announced flights from Oslo to Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø. Wizz has already been flying from Eastern European cities to the Torp airport at Sandefjord, a two-hour drive south of Oslo, mostly serving a migrant worker market with what it advertises as “cheap flights” to cities like Gdansk and Szezecin in Poland to Kaunas in Lithuania.

Now it plans more flights from Trondheim beginning December 17 to Bodø, Stavanger and Tromsø. Wizz also plans to fly between Tromsø and Bodø, Tromsø and Stavanger and set up new routes from Oslo to Ålesund and Bodø. The lowest fares will begin at just NOK 99 (USD 11), rising to NOK 293 and NOK 468 for those wanting to check luggage and have flexible tickets, according to Wizz’ own website. It would be nearly impossible for established carriers SAS, Norwegian and Widerøe to match such fares given their higher cost structure, but Norwegian has already tried even though it would mean flying at a loss.

‘Exploiting’ rivals’ vulnerablity
Nina Nordheim Pedersen, leader of the flight attendants’ union at SAS, calls Wizz Air “a threat to Norwegian worklife, since our foundation is a three-part cooperation (between companies, employees and their unions). Here comes a competing airline that doesn’t want to follow this fundamental means of organizing worklife.” Wizz Air has claimed it will follow all labour regulations in Norway. Pedersen said the unions expect Norwegian authorities to monitor Wizz closely to make sure they do, calling it “shameful” that Wizz wants “to undermine everything we have built up.”

Pedersen also accused Wizz Air of “exploiting and challenging the vulnerable situation we’re in right now,” after the Corona crisis has grounded most airlines’ fleets, forced the layoffs of thousands of employees and left airlines saddled with huge debt and no revenues coming in. She noted how Ryanair tried to set up a base at the Rygge Airport in Moss, south of Oslo, but lost a personnel lawsuit and ended up pulling out of Rygge, from which it only flew internationally. Wizz Air is the first foreign carrier to try entering the domestic market.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund