‘Like handing car keys to a drunk driver’: Backlash hits airline boss for telling staff to work through their exhaustion

Travelers flooding airports thanks to loosening pandemic restrictions could be confronted with a rather scary prospect when boarding their next plane: weary pilots and crew.  

Airlines around the world are struggling to ramp up operations after slashing headcount during the pandemic to survive. Yet rather than hire more staff, the CEO of European budget carrier Wizz Air wants them to push through their exhaustion.

“We cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness, because the person is fatigued,” said József Váradi, citing compensation fees. “Sometimes it is required to take the extra mile. The damage is huge when we are canceling the flight, it’s huge.”

Under EU regulations, passengers can claim anywhere between €250 to €600 in damages.

The comments come after Wizz Air earlier this week said it was suffering significant costs from cancellations and “operational hiccups” due to a lack of proper staffing at the airports themselves such as air traffic controllers.

When contacted by Fortune, the company said the clip posted to social media had been edited from an all-staff briefing that dealt with key business updates and current challenges facing the aviation industry, one of which was staff availability and welfare.

“In this context going the extra mile to minimize disruption was discussed,” it said. “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.”

Such assurances ring hollow, however, for the European Cockpit Association, the main body representing the interests of 40,000 pilots in 33 countries.  

It blasted Váradi’s comments as symptomatic of the company’s deficient approach to safety for passengers and crew, and called on the airline’s oversight body, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), to intervene.

“It’s like handing the car keys to a drunk driver,” the ECA warned. 

In a statement sent to Fortune, EASA said it was aware of the video and warned fatigue is a “serious safety hazard,” whose risks must be properly mitigated.

“We are currently investigating the allegations to determine whether and what further ad hoc oversight actions are necessary,” a spokesperson for the EU’s air traffic safety body said.

Fat bonus

In a survey conducted last year, ECA’s members ranked Wizz Air 113th out of 138 airlines, with one pilot’s testimony claiming it was a “nightmare” to work for a company that pushes everyone to work the maximum possible time: “Pilots and cabin crew are afraid to call [in as] sick, fatigue[d] or unfit to fly.”

In its 2021 annual report, the ECA said it formed a dedicated Wizz Air task force amid reports of pilot dismissals based on sick leave records and a refusal to exercise “captain’s discretion,” a loophole that allows them to extend their legal flight time limits.

On Friday, the ECA published advice that pilots had a legal obligation to report to the authorities instances where they are pressured to fly while fatigued. 

Recourse internally is more difficult for pilots at Wizz Air, as employees are effectively prevented from organizing in trade unions to defend themselves against potentially unreasonable demands by management. 

By comparison, German flagship carrier Lufthansa deals with several different unions that separately cover labor relations with pilots, cabin crew, and ground personnel. 

Founded by Váradi in 2003 after his time as CEO at the now-defunct Hungarian state-owned airline Malev, Wizz Air aimed to be an even more affordable version of Ryanair: an “ultra-low-cost” carrier.

Váradi himself doesn’t operate on a shoestring budget: He’s set to receive a £100 million ($124 million) bonus should he double the company’s market cap in five years. 

Reportedly one of the biggest bonuses ever offered to the CEO of a U.K.-listed company, a full third of Wizz Air shareholders followed the recommendation of proxy advisers Glass Lewis and ISS in voting against what was deemed an excessive bonus.

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