Covid-19-related redundancies at Wizz Air “dangerously influenced” flight safety culture, a whistleblower has claimed, after the way in which staff were selected for redundancy left them worried to call in sick.
Last April London-listed Wizz Air laid off around 1,000 staff – around 20 per cent of its workforce – after a travel shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic put financial pressure on the group.
Pilots based in Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania were made redundant last April, with the majority of redundancies from Hungary.
Despite the redundancies, the budget carrier is bracing itself for a net loss of up to €590m for the full financial year. However, Wizz said it still had €1.6bn in cash, having taken a number of steps to shore up its finances over the last quarter.
A Wizz Air pilot told City A.M. that the basis for layoffs “dangerously influenced” flight safety culture across the Wizz Air Group.
“People have been and are being pressured to work while sick, fatigued or extended duty periods in fear of sacking,” they said. “It is unacceptable and breaches regulations designed to ensure flight safety.”
Earlier this month an audio clip from the previous April came to light, allegedly featuring Wizz Air’s former head of flight operations Darwin Triggs, telling staff to draw up target lists of which staff should be made redundant.
Among Triggs’ suggestions for redundancy included those who called in sick, or those who refused to work on their days off.
In the audio recording a man who is allegedly Triggs can be heard saying: “We start off with the bad apples, so anyone who has caused you grief on a routine basis.”
He later suggests “anyone who is not Wizz culture” should be considered, along with those “constantly reporting sick, every time they’re sick” and those who decline to work on their days off.
Following an internal investigation at the airline, Triggs earlier this month stepped down from his role.
Letter to Wizz
In August 2020 following the sackings, Mircea Constantin, a former Wizz Air employee and the president of Sindicatul Aerolimit Professional (SAP) and the Flight Personnel Union Romania (FPU), unions that represent flight staff, wrote to Diederik Pen, group chief operating officer at Wizz, to express concern about safety at the airline.
“Our colleagues around the network are always sharing with us valuable information about the safety of the flight operations in Wizz Air that will most definitely be available to support the criticism served so far,” Constantin wrote in the letter, seen by City A.M.
“Your crew is truly scared of discrimination and persecution around sick leave days, refusals to extend maximum FDP (flight duty period) under captain’s discretion, refusals to work from off days, and fatigue reports or e-mails in response to exhausting rosters, since the company will eventually find a way to retaliate by dismissing them.”
Leaked messages from a Q&A session that took place on virtual interaction app Slido painted a similar picture: “Whether you want to see the truth of not, your staff are close to breaking point and becoming a flight safety risk. They deserve respect, not exploitation,” said one respondent.
Another added: “New procedure for CC (cabin crew) in CLJ (Cluj-Napoca airport) to not report to OCC (operation control centre) when they’re sick. If they do a manager will decide whether it’s justified instead of a physician. Any comment?”
‘A great place to work’
The FTSE-listed company rejected any concerns around an alleged lack of safety at the airline.
A spokesperson said: “Wizz Air has done and continues to do everything possible to secure the integrity of the business since the breakout of Covid-19.
“The past year has been challenging for the airline, in particular when the pandemic hit Europe in March 2020, which created the need for a reduction in staff. Whilst it is true that some language was used at that time – under unprecedented circumstances – which was regrettable, Wizz Air has taken swift and comprehensive action to ensure that its flight operations structure is best suited to and optimised for supporting and developing its flight crews.
“This includes new leadership of flight operations and a new, regional structure. Wizz Air categorically rejects any claims about lack of safety at the airline. Safety and security have always been paramount priorities for Wizz Air, which is exemplified by our exceptional safety track record and industry accreditations.”
Wizz Air pointed out it had made no further redundancies since April 2020, despite second and third waves of Covid-19.
“We continue to work tirelessly to upgrade pandemic impacted salaries, to implement our Pilot Peer Support Program, to invest in our pilot recency training and coaching program with focus on pilot competencies and to create new opportunities where they arise,” they continued.
“Despite the significant operational challenges associated with the pandemic, the 81 per cent satisfaction rate of the employee satisfaction survey as well as the 77 per cent retention rate among our crew members all point into the same direction: Wizz Air is a great place to work, where employees are listened to and where employees remain the company’s biggest asset.
“And we are in the process of hiring again in order to meet the demand expected post-Covid.”
A spokesperson for the UK pilot union Balpa said: “We have identified ‘commercial pressure’ as the absolutely central issue in our recently-published ‘Most Wanted Flight Safety Improvements’. Any time that pilots are put under pressure to cut corners, not report sick, not declare when they are too fatigued to fly, this is commercial pressure being brought to bear on safety.
“The situation report at Wizz Air [regarding the audio recording from April 2020] is extremely concerning. It is absolutely right that the manager in question has gone from his position, but serious questions remain about the airline’s commitment to a just safety culture given what has happened there. Other UK airlines work with Balpa to ensure the highest standards of safety and we would encourage Wizz to do the same.”
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) declined to comment.