On Monday morning, one of Wizz Air’s purple and pink aircraft took off from Budapest bound for Moscow. It marked the latest milestone in the airline’s “Look East” campaign, which has over the last year seen Wizz Air launch new routes to Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Georgia, Moldova and Israel.
Opening up Russian skies
But the new Moscow route is more than merely another new route for Wizz. Many aviation commentators see it as a significant move in opening up the Russian skies to low-cost carriers. Wizz’ Russian debut starts with five weekly flights in each direction. Bookings have been encouraging and Wizz has already announced that, with the launch of Europe’s winter airline schedules on Sunday October 27, the frequency on the Budapest to Moscow route will be increased to daily.
This is of course not the first time a low-cost carrier from western or central Europe has pushed east to tap the Russian market. EasyJet launched services from London and Manchester to Moscow in March, Spanish operator Vueling has a number of Russian routes and Oslo-based Norwegian has served the Russian market for seven years – most particularly with a link from Oslo to St. Petersburg.
Committed to stay
So why the fuss about Wizz? The issue is that for Vueling, easyJet and Norwegian, even the westernmost Russian cities are well removed from their main network hubs. Moscow and St. Petersburg will only ever be extremities of their network, a dash of the exotic East to liven up a business that is firmly based in the West and which deals only hesitantly with the Cyrillic alphabet.
Wizz is different. With a base in Kiev, it is very much at home in Ukraine. Next week, it opens a second Ukrainian base in Donetsk. And last week, Wizz Air announced that from late April 2014 it will also have aircraft based in Lviv.
The airline’s plans to fly from Kiev to Moscow stumbled at the regulatory approval stage. But Wizz Air is nothing if not persistent and it will surely be looking to expand its operations on routes within the former Soviet Union. No surprise, perhaps, that Aeroflot is stirring. The business model espoused by discount carriers like easyJet and Wizz Air is wholly alien in Russia. But last month Aeroflot announced its own plans to launch a low-cost subsidiary.
Russian skies are suddenly becoming very much more interesting.