Low-cost carrier Wizz Air is exploring launching flights to Saudi Arabia, part of an ambitious expansion strategy as the travel industry emerges from the pandemic.
The London-listed airline on Tuesday said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi government to explore “airline market development opportunities” in the country, which hopes to expand its aviation and tourism industries.
Saudi Arabia has set out plans to triple the number of passengers flying into the country by 2030, a move that Wizz said presented “unprecedented opportunities” for airlines and the aviation industry supply chain.
Wizz has rapidly expanded from its Hungarian home market to offer a flight network spreading across Europe and into parts of central Asia and the Middle East.
The carrier in 2019 set up a new airline, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, its first established base outside Europe and a joint venture with state-owned Abu Dhabi Development Holding.
At the time, Wizz boss József Váradi said the decision was based on his belief that the “centre of aviation” was going to shift from west to east, noting that airports in western Europe were increasingly constrained and more expensive.
Aviation analysts at stockbroker Goodbody said they expected Wizz to focus on carrying workers between Saudi Arabia and the Indian subcontinent, as well as linking a new “mega airport” in Riyadh with capitals in central and eastern Europe.
“Similar to the deal with Abu Dhabi, we assume Wizz would receive attractive deals on airport charges, fuel and, possibly, access to capital,” Goodbody said.
Wizz’s management stuck to a bullish expansion strategy even as the pandemic ripped through the aviation industry, and the stock reached record highs even as rivals struggled.
But its fortunes have shifted and its shares have fallen almost 40 per cent this year. Its exposure to higher oil prices has unsettled investors because of a decision not to hedge its future fuel needs, which was eventually reversed. It has also not been helped by its exposure to eastern Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Váradi was last year offered a £100mn bonus if he could grow the airline’s share price, currently just below £30, to £120 over five years.
Wizz’s business model is based on organic growth and stimulating demand for flying in untapped markets, but the airline also initiated a surprise takeover approach for UK-listed rival easyJet, which was rejected last autumn.