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The skies above may be relatively quiet, as most air travel remains grounded, but there is plenty of activity going on behind the scenes.
Wizz Air Holdings (WIZZ), the London-listed Hungarian low-cost airline, has just easily sold €500 million of three-year bonds at a rate of only 1.35%, having been deluged by orders for more than €2 billion from investors.
These are not your average investors, they are fund managers, but the positive take-up to some extent highlights investors’ confidence in the ability of central banks to successfully mitigate the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. And to an even greater extent, just how much investors are on the hunt for returns - even looking at deeply-troubled sectors such as the airline industry, where activity has ground to a near halt for the best part of the year.
But does it in any way suggest the stricken airline industry is firing up its engines and could take off as soon as pandemic restrictions are lifted?
The likes of Ryanair would like us to believe that is so, with its “Jab and go” ads encouraging people to book their future holidays. But it is still almost impossible to determine exactly when air travel will get back to ‘normal’ with any certainty, or whether people will travel.
In December, 665,722 passengers flew with Wizz Air, an 80% drop compared with the same month a year earlier. But that was better than the 85% drop during November, when passenger volumes totaled just 456,487, down from more than 2.9 million during November 2019. That is not to say the appetite for air travel has diminished. Lockdowns have made all but essential travel impossible for much of the past 12 months, so it is difficult to determine when and whether the appetite for a return to the skies will return.
Airline chiefs, of course, are convinced that pent-up demand will see business boom. Back at the start of November, Wizz chief executive Jozsef Varadi, said that while he was preparing for a “difficult” winter, he expected demand for flying to return by the beginning of April, and he insisted the carrier would be sticking to its ambitious expansion plans.
These plans include 13 bases including one at London Gatwick and one at Doncaster Sheffield airports, opened back in April, in the hope that Wizz can actually exploit the crisis by extending its reach while - it hopes - its rivals retrench.
But whether that is going to happen any time soon remains to be seen. At the start of November, when he laid out his plans, memories of the sort of normality we could one day get back to still lingered on from the summer. The vaccine was on the horizon and the new variants had not emerged yet. So the prospect of a second and subsequent third lockdown were probably not something Mr Varadi - or any us really - had seriously contemplated.
Now, mid-way through January and with the vaccine rollout slow and now even slowing down - albeit hopefully only temporarily, while suppliers upgrade their production facilities - the certainty with which anyone would suggest April could be the month the world’s travel industry reopens for business, is surely waning.
When Wizz Air posts its third quarter figures on Thursday, apart from gloomy historic passenger data showing how bad it has been and more positive messaging about how Wizz and the airline industry hopes things will be “once this is all over”, there is really not much scope for anything in between.
Posting half year results at the start of November that showed a near-72% fall in revenue, Mr Varadi did his best to put a positive spin on trade. He said the airline “distinctly outperformed” the industry in the second quarter and that the focus would continue to be on cost management and a longer-term plan to “strive to maintain cash-positive flying with a disciplined approach towards capacity.”
And that is probably the best that Mr Varadi and Wizz Air investors can hope for, until the interminable pandemic headwinds abate and vaccine rollout tailwinds propel us back into a world where having the freedom to fly, is the norm.
More on Wizz Air Holdings PLC
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