Simon Calder, aka The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores an important travel theme – and what it means to you.
“We are all tired.” That’s what a leader said this week. Not a Ukrainian general or British prime minister, but the chief executive of Wizz Air.
Jozsef Varadi, boss of the giant budget airline, made the comment in an internal video message to staff.
You can see his point: After two years of hibernation during the worst travel restrictions of the pandemic, aviation is expected to grow and prosper — even though many great people have fled the industry for less stressful work, more social hours and better pay. The overload is revealed in the hundreds of cancellations reported late in the past week – most on easyJet, but a few on Wizz Air.
“We can’t run this business when every fifth person from a base calls in sick because the person is tired,” the Wizz Air chief continued. “The damage is enormous if we cancel a flight. It’s huge. It’s the reputational damage of the brand and it’s the other financial damage, the transactional damage because we have to pay compensation for that.”
As discussed in my last podcast episode, the magnitude of the potential payoff is huge. Suppose a fully booked Wizz Air Airbus A321 flight to and from the Canary Islands is canceled and everyone with a round-trip ticket takes their due £350, then the bill is a whopping £164,500.
Adding the cost of hotel rooms and alternative flights for stranded passengers, a single return flight cancellation could cost a quarter of a million pounds.
The point where the aviation community got into an uproar was when Mr Varadi said, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go the extra mile.”
British law says: “A crew member shall not fly, and an operator shall not oblige him to fly, if either has reason to believe that he suffers, or is likely to suffer, while flying, fatigue of such a degree that safety of the aircraft or its occupants.”
Did the airline boss suggest that pilots and cabin crew report to work and take to the skies, even if they are excessively tired?
Absolutely not, a Wizz Air spokesperson told me. “Safety is and will remain our number one priority. We have a robust and responsible crew management system that meets the needs of our people and enables us to serve as many customers as possible in today’s challenging environment.”
I asked Martin Chalk, former British Airways pilot and now General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), about the Wizz Air Chief Executive’s comments.
“Fatigue is no different from alcohol in the way it works. No one supports pilots who drink alcohol – why support something that has the same effect?
“We call on him to make it clear that he does not mean that pilots and cabin crew should report if they are tired.
“He should be quick to say that he supports pilots who put themselves down.”
British aviation is almost unbelievably safe; The last British plane crash that resulted in deaths was in 1988: the Lockerbie disaster.
The skies have remained safe thanks to an obsessive respect for safety and an extensive set of regulations with, rightly, the pilot’s judgment at their heart.
Of course, in these difficult days, everyone wants to get passengers where they need to be and get the airlines back to something akin to profitability. But the higher the stress, the greater the need to rest well.
A leading European aviation safety expert, who would not be named, told me: “Although work and rest times are measured in hours, the actual degree of fatigue really depends on what you are doing.
“The stress and uncertainty of some of the chaos we’re seeing is conducive to more fatigued staff. Therein lies the challenge.”
As a passenger you are probably tired of waiting. But it is safer than the alternative.