Twenty years ago this May, mulitcoloured airline Wizz Air (WIZZ.L) set out to replace bus services in Europe with its first commercial flight from Katowice, Poland into London Luton, now the heart of the airline’s operation in the UK.
“It’s our mission to connect and bring people together,” says Marion Geoffroy, Wizz Air UK’s managing director. “We came from liberalisation of air space in Europe and also from enhanced connectivities in countries that accessed the EU.”
The Hungary-based Wizz Air group first made its move to set up at Luton in 2017, the carrier acquiring the slots used by fellow Luton-based Monarch Airlines when the latter fell into administration. It now operates short-haul flights across the UK offering routes from Bucharest to Tirana and is seen as one of Europe’s fastest growing airlines.
In a male-dominated industry, Geoffroy is also one of few female senior executives and has driven the carrier’s post-COVID growth (Wizz Air’s capacity saw a 23% increase in 2023, accompanied by over 10 new routes from the UK). With more than 20 years of global aviation experience, she currently oversees a UK fleet of 17 aircraft and around 900 employees (50 office-based, 200 pilots and the rest cabin staff).
Graduating as an aviation lawyer — her aunt was a pilot — Geoffroy worked for Air France (AF.PA) for a decade before leaving the sector for five years. She was then called out of the blue with an opening at Wizz Air, first joining as general counsel in 2015 when it also listed on the London Stock Exchange. After three years she was promoted to CCO. “Things always move fast at Wizz Air,” she says.
Indeed, in 2021 she was then offered the managing director role in the UK, commuting from Geneva to UK and quarantining on her first week until the end of 2021. Settling into the UK in 2022, she has dealt with the fallout from pandemic disruption and wars. “This is aviation so it’s going from one crisis to another, always being the first sector impacted and the last one to recover,” she adds.
“But I still believe that travel makes people better, knowledgeable and understanding of others. I physically enjoy flying and the technology is still improving. Now we can seat 239 people in our brand new aircraft, with two engines. We can fly up to six hours and that’s why flying with us is so affordable and more convenient.
“This is why Wizz is growing so fast as we have put all our financial efforts into a young and efficient fleet with a lot of seats and a lot of high density and offer tickets at low prices compared to our competitors. It’s why we say at Wizz that everybody can fly.”
Wizz Air UK is the largest operator at Luton Airport, the carrier seeing 25% growth year-on-year, and 400 aircraft orders that are set in stone before the end of the decade. Further, with a fleet average age of 4.1 years (UK at 3.5), Geoffroy says the figure is below any of its competitors, and the carrier is seeing more women enter into pilot roles above the industry average.
It also counts itself as the lowest CO2 emitter per passenger/km against its rivals. “We publish our footprints and emissions and we make it very clear around the brand that it’s not greenwashing,” says Geoffroy, “it’s very factual that when you fly with us, you fly the greenest option in terms of CO2 emissions intensity.”
There are challenges to overcome. Last year, Wizz Air was named worst short-haul airline by UK passengers after a survey by consumer group Which? gave the carrier one star out of five for boarding experience, cabin environment and seat comfort.
“I’m putting my hands up in that in 2022 we faced disruptions we had never faced before,” adds Geoffroy. “Everybody wanted to fly and go on holiday [after COVID restrictions were lifted]. We felt we were prepared, but we weren’t prepared as an industry. It took us six months to recover and we had an enormous backlog in customer claims.”
This month, it was reported that Wizz Air had paid out £1.2m in compensation to thousands of passengers, while last September the carrier started a restructuring project within the group. “We wanted to say ‘never again’,” says Geoffroy.
Driven by an “aviation first” attitude, Geoffroy is also the first female to sit on the Wizz Air leadership team, which now numbers five. Meanwhile, the brand has also established a programme where its cabin crew can train to be pilots. “That’s pretty unique,” adds Geoffroy.
“Those are people who are already in the industry. We will facilitate the training, as for a standalone pilot you pay alot to be trained. As a company we want to support and finance our people.”