* To cut Jan capacity to 25% of last yr’s level from 35% in Dec
* Confident in long-term growth prospects
* Sees demand much improved by the summer (Recasts, adds background)
LONDON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Wizz Air will cut its flying plans for January because of new lockdowns in Britain, its chief executive Jozsef Varadi said, adding there was little visibility for the coming months but travel demand should return by summer.
Earlier on Thursday, larger competitor Ryanair cut its annual traffic forecast by around 5 million passengers, also blaming lockdowns.
During December, Varadi said Wizz flew 35% of 2019’s capacity. He forecast that the new lockdowns in the United Kingdom, one of Wizz’s three biggest markets alongside Romania and Poland, would mean capacity would fall to 25% in January.
Varadi, who co-founded Wizz in Hungary in 2003, said Wizz’s longer term growth story remained intact, and the airline should bounce back.
“I think if restrictions get removed by summer, I would say that summer 2021 would not be far away from summer 2019 from our perspective,” he said. “But you would not see that happening at many of the other airlines.”
Since the pandemic struck, some larger airlines have scrambled to raise the funds to survive a period of almost no flying. EasyJet, British Airways and Lufthansa all plan to shrink.
But Wizz entered the crisis well-funded, like Ryanair, with which it vies for the title of Europe’s lowest-cost airline.
Wizz says its 1.6 billion euros ($1.96 billion) in cash means it can survive for two years even if all planes are grounded.
The pandemic is still a challenge. Wizz axed 1,000 staff and for the six months ended September, sank to a loss of 145 million euros. The stock is down 13% over the last year.
Wizz spent the last five years expanding beyond its eastern European base across the United Kingdom and western Europe and has continued to grow its fleet despite the pandemic.
Since last March, it has opened 260 new routes and 13 bases, including one at Gatwick, London’s second biggest airport, where it is keen to expand.
Next week, it will head further east with the launch of Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, an airline connecting the Gulf region and Europe.
Wizz has also beefed up its board and management team. The former chief financial officer of British Airways-owner IAG joined the board in November and easyJet’s former chief commercial officer is expected to join later this year.
While there was limited visibility on bookings for the next three to five months, summer bookings were “very encouraging” said Varadi.
“Clearly, people’s expectations are that by summer, this is all going to be behind us,” he said, citing vaccination programmes.
The arrival of the vaccine prompted Ryanair to forecast in November that the summer would be “very impressive”, while easyJet has been more cautious.
$1 = 0.8156 euros Reporting by Sarah Young. Editing by Kate Holton, Mark Potter and Barbara Lewis