According to the European Transport Workers Federation, as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine in late February, low-cost carrier Wizz Air “abandoned” its personnel and failed to move its employees out of harm’s way before Russian troops broke across Ukraine’s border (ETF).
Wizz Air found itself trapped within Ukraine with four planes and roughly 200 staff as President Vladimir Putin authorized a full-scale invasion of its neighbor. Ukraine’s airspace had been closed to civilian flights by this point, and there was no easy way to evacuate personnel to safer countries such as Poland or Hungary.
“When the war started, the Wizz management team ‘successfully’ managed to leave its Ukraine-based crews stranded in Ukraine,” the ETF said in a damning statement about the airline’s actions in the lead up to the start of the war.
“Messages published on Wizz Air’s internal social network show clearly that the low-cost carrier continued to operate in Ukraine until the last possible moment, ignoring all the official warnings, as well as those from inside the airline itself.”
Every other European airline had already stopped flying to Ukraine by the time Russian forces crossed into the country, fearing that armed war could break out at any time.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Wizz Air CEO József Váradi reveals that he visited the airline’s bases in Kyiv and Lviv a week before the war began and came to the conclusion that “no one really believed there could be any substantial growth.”
When Váradi discovered that Ukrainian airspace had been closed, he was at a luxury management retreat in Austria. Someone from the European Commission called him around 3 a.m. to break the news.
In the case of a severe escalation, Wizz Air had calculated that it would require a three-hour window to evacuate its four planes and hundreds of employees. The chance had been squandered.
Instead, Wizz Air activated its ‘crisis response plan,’ which is generally intended for hijackings or planes that abruptly vanish from radar, according to Váradi.
“We have information indicating that many of Wizz’s employees in Ukraine were abandoned in Ukraine,” the ETF claims. “Some of them spent more nights sleeping on the floors of the Kyiv subway; others were stuck in districts subject to bombing by Russia, living in constant fear, losing their homes.”
The ETF feared that initial claims that Wizz Air was working to evacuate staff from Ukraine was “just PR trying to cover the dirty tactics they applied in Ukraine to maximize their profit and trying to hide all the wrong decisions they took”.
Váradi, on the other hand, claims that the airline has successfully relocated many of its personnel from Ukraine.
Wizz Air engaged private security forces to evacuate its employees under the cover of darkness, employing men with military experience. Families were given protective jackets in order to get out of Ukraine safely.
However, not every employee has been given permission to depart. The Ukrainian government has made it illegal for men aged 18 to 65 to leave the nation, while other Wizz Air employees have chosen to remain in the country to be with their families.
And, of course, the four planes are still stalled in Ukraine, according to the Wall Street Journal, where satellite footage is being monitored.