If you are looking at the world from the perspective of the beautiful city of Budapest, Hungary, the surrounding airline world is largely influenced by Wizz Air, which is based there. Because the influence of this Low Cost Carrier is principally in Central and Eastern Europe it has not yet got the visibility of some of the longer-established European Low Cost Carriers (LCCs), but its rate of growth since its first flight in May 2004 makes the ongoing success story impressive as it expands into the pan-European market. Following the accession to the EU by CEE states, combined with the background of high fares being offered by legacy airlines in the region, the founders of Wizz Air created an airline for the changing market. As David Morgan, Head of Flight Operations and Chief Pilot, explains, the opportunity of embracing new ways of working were built in from the start. The classic ULCC model of having the principle of simplicity drive the company has been embedded into the airline DNA. The start point is to operate a single type, in this case the Airbus A320 family. Not only does this drive economies in both initial and recurrent training, but the significant added benefit is familiarity with the equipment and experience in the one type of operation. This means that those who move along the career path are already fully immersed in the company culture and mode of operation.
With a current fleet of 59 A320s, and which will see the arrival of the first A321 in November, the total fleet is presently forecast to grow to 67 aircraft by the end of April 2016. Because, to virtually all intents and training purposes, the A321 is the same as its slightly smaller sister, there is minimal change to the training patterns, and crews will effectively still operate in a single type fleet. There are some 700 pilots comprising 35 nationalities online at the moment, and the CY2016 target is to recruit a further 200. The cabin crew stands at 1400, and will grow proportionately as the fleet expands. These crews are distributed over 22 bases in 12 countries, ranging from a single aircraft supported by 12 pilots and 24 cabin crew, with a base manager leading each discipline, to one base with nine aircraft and crews. Between them they operate over 380 routes to 112 destinations, with additional routes being planned.
Recruiting and Career Path
In common with at least one other major European carrier, Wizz Air has found that only about half of the licensed pilots applying for positions are able to pass their selection process. At the same time, there is a significant shortage of experienced pilots suitable for command. Morgan attributes the lack of competent recruits to the infinitely variable quality of the low time pilots fresh out of training, whose shortcomings are sometimes only evident once they start line operations. Consequently the long term plan is not only to ensure a supply of well-trained new pilots, but also to plan for the stability of the pilot team by mapping out an entire career pattern to attract and retain the right people. The very definite preference is for internal promotion to command so as to guarantee familiarity with the style of operation within the Wizz Air network. The solution now being put into practice is an ab initio training pattern which will be delivered by two European partners. The first, CTC, have well-established pilot training programmes, and will start 28 students in September and these will train across CTC's global training centres. A further partner, Central European Flight Academy (CEFA) has been created by merging the talents of three organisations. Trener, based in Hungary, formerly trained for Malev, and have a facility near Debrecen in eastern Hungary; Martinair Training, who will supply the Diamond aircraft and some instructors; and the Holland-based Flight Simulator Company (FSC). CEFA will train their first group of 12 students, also starting in September. The course will be the classic CPL/IR Frozen ATPL, leading to a licence issued by the Hungarian authority, and will include MCC and Jet Orientation. Given the present centre of gravity of Wizz Air in Central Europe, the aim is to encourage and retain new entrants from the region, although recruits will be selected after a range of recruiting days across many of Europe's capital cities. Hitherto the huge cost of training has simply been out of reach of many talented individuals, so a scheme has been constructed which relies on thorough selection procedures carried out by the training suppliers, in which Wizz Air will participate. Those candidates selected will be guaranteed a job with Wizz Air on successful completion of the course, and such a guarantee will help them with a bank loan to be arranged by the training organisations. So far as the future of this project is concerned, when experience in working with the graduates of this programme proves their worth, consideration will be given as to the suitability of MPL in answering the extended needs. This could be the next evolution of the ab initio project. That should take care of the entry level competence of the young pilots. The second piece of the jigsaw, the planned career pattern, starts when they join Wizz Air. A normal progression will start to move after 1500 hours, when they acquire an ATPL and move to Senior First Officer. Promotion beyond that is a function (primarily) of proven performance, with the opportunity to move to the Career Pool, which offers opportunities for command and/or managerial responsibilities, depending on the individual's ambitions. Command opportunities start after 3,500 hours, with progression to Line Training captain possible after a further 1,000 hours in command. All of this progress relies on performance and competency rather than seniority. With the high flying rate achievable (850 hours per year) it can be seen that there is potential to move rapidly to a position of greater responsibility. This coupled with a demanding operational environment which requires routine operation from narrow/wide runways, non-precision approaches, challenging weather conditions, varied route structure and work within a close-knit team at each base, offers an attractive package for a long-term career. That should significantly help the retention of experienced pilots, who will be able to operate closer to home, and perhaps reduce the attraction of the siren calls of more distant operators. All of that is underpinned by a fundamental drive for safe operations, indeed, Morgan believes that this is embedded in the DNA of the airline. Given the style of operation it is critical that that remains clearly in the mindset of the crews, and enlightened joint CRM is a fundamental part of the training.
Wizz Air uses the CAE A320 FFSö , installed two years ago at its home base of Budapest, at the annual rate of 6,500 hours, reflecting the other imperative of "Resource Utilisation". Given that most of this is for recurrent training, the initial type rating, if necessary, is usually carried out by third parties. As a consequence of the expanding fleet the time is rapidly approaching when a further FFS and supporting training suite will be needed, and plans are in place to address this requirement. All cabin crew training is carried out in Budapest. Given the single fleet philosophy, a purpose-built (by FSC) emergency and evacuation trainer has been installed. Previously third party trainers were used, but the cabins did not specifically reflect the interiors of the Wizz Air aircraft. The new trainer does so, and now there is no familiarization training required - the tool matches the aircraft. Similarly, fire trainers and slide training use familiar equipment. Although Wizz Air has its own small P145 organisation, its principle long term partner for aircraft maintenance is Lufthansa Technic, who supports the operation from their bases in Budapest and Bucharest.
De Facto National (Hungarian) Airline
In the absence of any other major player, and with the comprehensive route network now established and growing, Wizz Air may perhaps be seen as the de facto national carrier of Hungary. Positive steps have been made to anticipate further demand for pilots possessing the skills and resilience that the airline requires. Not only has entry been facilitated for the next generation of pilots, but a transparent career path has been mapped out. Internal training and data monitoring is set up, and the feedback loop established. The approval of Wizz Air as an ATO helps that training, and also permits the accreditation of cabin crew under EASA regulation. Morgan recognises that in many companies internal monitoring of quality is not always as objective it might be, so a long standing and experienced external TRE provider ensures that standards are maintained. Wizz Air has already made a big impact within the region in a relatively short time. It is the major Central European airline, and is set to continue to build on some solid foundations. One to watch.