Wizz Air CEO József Váradi has faced backlash in recent days from pilot unions after the Hungarian businessman appeared to encourage employees to work through fatigue. 

His comments shocked several pilots’ unions but have recently caused aviation safety regulators to investigate further. 

Further details 

In a briefing addressed to employees, József Váradi talks of how the speedy uptake in air travel in recent months has caused some Wizz Air pilots to call in sick due to fatigue. 

Pilots are encouraged to not work through illness or fatigue as doing so could result in mistakes that have, in the past, proven fatal in cases where pilots have been working whilst in need of rest. 

This is why there are restrictions on the number of hours air crews are supposed to work. Rules state that all aircrews for any airline cannot and should not fly if they are in a state of fatigue which could endanger passengers or the aircraft itself. 

Regardless, Váradi comments that this cannot continue and while he is sympathetic to the fact that fatigue is a potential outcome of busy schedules, he suggests that there is a necessity to go “the extra mile” even while feeling exhausted. 

Wizz Air CEO József Váradi
József Váradi has served as Wizz Air’s CEO since 2003. Since taking up post, Váradi grew the carrier into a major player within Europe’s aviation industry. | © Wizz Air

The unions have stressed how dangerous it is to fly whilst fatigued and Váradi’s comments showed a “deficient safety culture.” 

But Váradi continued, mentioning that cancelling flights due to the lack of pilots risks significant damage to Wizz Air’s financial status and reputation but this will not occur if its pilots fly fatigued:

“The damage is huge when we are cancelling the flights, it’s huge. It is reputational damage of the brand and it is the other financial damage, transactional damage because we have to pay compensation for that.”

Wizz Air has made comments since and maintained that the CEO’s comments were taken out of context and not explicitly addressed to pilots:

“Our crew unavailability has been very low, at 4%. In this context, going the extra mile to minimise disruption was discussed. What this does not mean is compromising safety. Wizz Air and the airline industry are highly regulated, and safety has, and always will be, our first priority.”

The statement continued by referring to the widely shared clip posted by the European Cockpit Association:

“This clip has been edited from an all staff briefing – not pilots only, but also cabin crew and all office employees – on key business updates and current challenges facing aviation.”

The scrutiny continues…

Regardless of the statement from Wizz Air, red flags have been raised regarding the ultra-low-cost carrier’s corporate and safety culture. 

It’s extremely hazardous to put profit over safety yet it is a perilous switch various companies made in the past and suffered for. The aviation industry strives to avoid this switch in priorities, hence why several pilots’ unions (including the European Cockpit Association) have publicly criticised the CEO for his concerning comments that suggest putting passenger and crew lives at risk. 

The European Cockpit Association (ECA) was formed in 1991 represents almost 40,000 pilots across Europe. The ECA wrote to the European safety regulator – The European Union Aviation Safety Agency – over concerns that Wizz Air had a concerning attitude towards passenger and crew safety. 

The ECA, as previously mentioned, also took to social media, uploading a clip of Váradi’s briefing to employees on Twitter.

Elsewhere Martin Chalk, General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, commented on the matter, sharing how studies have demonstrated that fatigue can have an effect on a person’s thinking and decision-making that’s “similar to alcohol.” He continued:

“No-one supports pilots or other safety-sensitive staff working with alcohol in their system… [I was] very surprised by the apparent views of Mr Varadi on fatigue.”

Chalk called on Wizz Air’s CEO to either clarify his comments or “consider whether he is in the right job.” He explained why:

“People’s lives are important, and we don’t squander them for no reason – definitely not for profit.”

Wizz Air
Wizz Air’s longstanding CEO is under-fire by those within the industry. | © WizzAir

What happens now?

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has responded to the matter and the letter from ECA. The EASA are responsible for civil aviation safety in Europe as well as certification, regulation, monitoring, standardisation and investigation. They said:

“EASA recognizes that fatigue can be a serious safety hazard and needs to be identified and properly mitigated. We are currently investigating the allegations to determine whether and what further ad-hoc oversight actions are necessary.”

It is currently unknown when the investigation will be complete and the outcome will be shared with the public. Whether CEO József Váradi will receive any kind of penalty for his comments is undetermined for now.

Wizz Air has, just like other airlines across the UK, cancelled and delayed flights over recent holidays because of staff shortages. Last week, the Hungary-based carrier cancelled a “large number” of flights from Doncaster Sheffield Airport following a dispute with the airport regarding its failure to agree to the terms of a commercial agreement with the carrier. 

What do you think of this situation? Let us know in the comments below.

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