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Airline Insight: Wizz Air Prepares For A321neos, Growth Beyond Eastern Europe

Budapest-based Wizz Air is one of the fast-growing Central European carriers and operates one of the youngest fleets in Europe with an average aircraft age of 4.4 years. Heiko Holm, Wizz Air head of technical services, spoke with Inside MRO Chief Editor Lee Ann Shay at the MRO Baltics, Eastern Europe and Russia (BEER) Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, in May about how the Hungarian carrier is preparing for the arrival of its next aircraft types—including its 110 Airbus A321neos on order.

Lee Ann Shay/Aviation Week

Heico Holm, Wizzair

Wizz Air plans to double its fleet in five years. From a technical standpoint, how are you preparing for that?

We always have a deployment plan at least a year in advance. We collaborate with our current maintenance providers because we have a regionalized maintenance approach. We try to allocate as many aircraft as possible to a region simply because we want to prevent rotating those aircraft so we don’t have to fly them to bigger maintenance bases, which disrupts the system. As a point-to-point operator, we want to prevent rotating aircraft out of region, which is also disruptive. If we already have a maintenance provider in an area to which we want to deploy aircraft, that is normally covered under an existing contract. But if we need to deploy to a new station, we discuss the setup and scope at least six months in advance. That’s not specific to an aircraft type. For other services, that are not taking effect immediately, such as base maintenance, we are protected under contracts for the upcoming aircraft. Our base maintenance contracts usually last 5-7 years—all of our existing contracts can include additional aircraft. About every 5-8 years, we contract for services to include growth paths, including maintenance. We want to grow together with our maintenance providers. We don’t want to all of a sudden drop 20 aircraft in their shops and hope for the best.

You took the first Airbus A321ceo in November 2015 and Wizz Air has a large NEO order. What’s the status of this?

We have 18 A320ceos and about nine more to come through next summer. And then we start the NEO deliveries. So we will have about 100 aircraft in total before we start getting the NEOs, which from an operational perspective is not challenging. There’s new technology in the engine, of course, but the rest of the aircraft commonality is quite high. We have to focus on preparation for the engines—not shop providers, but line maintenance. We started preparations for the NEO introduction in June. We love advance planning; we do not like surprises.

What is the most challenging part of introducing a new aircraft type?

From the maintenance perspective, the aircraft isn’t too different—it’s the engine that is most challenging. Also, there aren’t many European operators of this specific engine type, except Lufthansa, Vueling and other Western European airlines. But in Eastern Europe, there is no experience. We have to gain that experience, which is a challenge, and on top of that, we look after the training of those maintenance providers. Sometimes we have very small maintenance providers that can’t send 20 engineers at the same time to training. It has to be staggered, which is why we are starting 1.5 years ahead.

Wizz Air has 27 bases. How do you ensure you have the right staff and parts in each location?

Because we do regionalized maintenance, we use one service provider per region. For example, in Poland we have one maintenance provider that has to cover six bases. We have another one in Lithuania and Latvia as well as Georgia, so we group them together so they can exchange workforces, have the same quality and same standards. We believe the regionalized maintenance concept is simply the best with the diversity of our network. For the southern region, the Balkans, we have another maintenance provider that covers places like Sofia (Bulgaria), Tuzla (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Skopje (Macedonia) and Belgrade (Serbia). They have the best local knowledge and can accommodate any necessary capability buildup.

On its 15th anniversary in 2015, Wizz Air announced a new livery and interiors. Are the changes complete?

This project is done, except for the exterior. We are very cost-sensitive, so we do the painting when the painting needs to be done. So it may take another 2-3 years, but only about 30 [aircraft] are left. The interiors are done, and all of the new aircraft will come with the new livery and interior design. Maas Aviation provides the paint, but we just started a tender for the next paint season. In the near future, the biggest challenge will be the end of leases. We [will] start returning aircraft in a more predictive manner next year.

How many aircraft will you be returning annually?

Fortunately, we start slowly, with 5-6, then we go up to 12-15, then up to 20. We start at least 18 months in advance. We try to be as cautious as we can. We have had headaches with previous lease returns, so we are now very clear about the costs and have improved the entire document setup. We even allow the last C check prior to delivery, to start defect rectification sooner so everything isn’t left until the last check. The biggest headaches come from documentation, because we have such a diverse network. We have standards for documentation  but at the end of a lease it’s always a headache.

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Are there any challenges to support Wizz Air’s rapid growth—including staffing?

We try to move toward process improvements, and we’re definitely going in the direction of predictive maintenance. One of the biggest challenges with this pace of growth is keeping the network running. If you have an aircraft on the ground, either we should have the spare part on site or a fast way to get the part there. With predictive maintenance, we hope to have a better idea of when that part will fail and we can deploy a new part—or replace it even earlier, which reduces the work and pressure on the operation. We will set up something with somebody. We will do it. It’s not how to do it anymore; we are working with a provider that is looking into this. We have to be process-driven, with a more automated and standardized process. We have a distribution network of spare parts. We have core maintenance contracts for our bases as well for our network. We have evaluation processes for maintenance, and everything is more or less standardized. We just apply those standards for growth.

Does Lufthansa Technik perform all of Wizz Air’s base maintenance?

It currently performs about 90% of our base maintenance. We have the freedom here and there to give something out elsewhere, which helps us see how others operate. In the next five years, there will be a step change in our base maintenance behavior, just based on the number of [required] checks. So we decided to limit the duration of the contract because the next step will be that they can’t do it all in one visit. We have to shift to two providers or find another one. So we signed with secondary maintenance providers that can take some overload in case things aren’t working out. We are looking at risk optimization.

You mentioned the difficulty of performing line maintenance at some of your remote outstations. In a perfect world, would you need regulatory changes to smooth the process?

Regulatory changes [for the workforce] would be required, but that’s the smaller part. It’s more the local regulations and the openness of those governments. This isn’t about aviation legislation, it’s about national rules for the workforce. As a European operator in the European Union, it’s fairly easy for people to move about the continent. But we operate from bases outside Europe, so this makes it hard to deploy even European people to those stations. Therefore, we need to look for a local solution or work with governments that still can believe in the national carrier perspective, which can contradict other interests. I think this will change mid- to long-term, so deployment is a shorter-term obstacle.

Is Wizz Air considering inflight entertainment?

We don’t have IFE so we don’t have to worry about keeping up with it. The biggest challenge is keeping up with customer demand. We are traveling from east to west where customers yesterday used to take a bus. So onboard Wi-Fi might not be the first priority, but it will definitely come. But our challenge is—if you consider the low-cost model, and we are sticking to the low-cost model—what is the best way to accommodate Wi-Fi? The technology is moving faster and faster, so your investments are already old—and you have to upgrade 100 aircraft. It’s not an easy return on investment. To align customer demand with reality, it’s difficult. That’s why we decided not to have anything now, but that could change once we have the NEOs. We try to keep our aircraft configuration as simple as possible.

Anything else our readers should know about?

As we go farther east, countries are less prepared [for MRO for new aircraft types]. The Balkan states already are prepared—they want to move into Europe. To find a suitable workforce, we looked into this regionalized MRO concept. The infrastructure can be a challenge. Yesterday, the airport might have been a military base. It starts with security: There are no fences. There can be dogs, reindeer—whatever. I’m not joking. Bird and rabbit strikes can be a headache. Grass grows on the runways. Then you don’t have enough check-in desks or ground-handling equipment or there are no stairs. That’s why we start for non-EU countries at least nine months ahead, to look for a setup. 

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