By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air is expanding in Norway to take advantage of a shift towards domestic tourism caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline's chief executive said on Tuesday.
The step could add to the troubles of Norwegian Air and Swedish-Danish rival SAS, which have dominated domestic Norwegian air travel.
Norwegian Air has said a cash crisis could force it to halt operations early next year, while Swedish-Danish SAS has secured a package to help it survive a collapse in demand.
"We flew to 48 Norwegian destinations even before the pandemic," Wizz Air CEO Jozsef Varadi told the website Index.hu in an interview.
"International flights are increasingly exposed to government restrictions... domestic markets have become more important in the short term."
He said Wizz Air was also increasing its flights in Italy to take advantage of tourism there.
In Norway, domestic travel is still limited. Avinor, a Norwegian airport operator said passenger numbers were down more than 70% versus the same time in 2019.
Wizz Air already launched new Norwegian routes in October.
Varadi said cash had become the main performance indicator during the pandemic and Wizz Air was working to come out of the coronavirus crisis with maximum liquidity.
He is ambitious to build on Wizz Air's business of ferrying eastern European workers to and from Norway and said use of the carrier by Norwegians has increased, setting the stage for a shake-up of the SAS-Norwegian "duopoly".
With 1.6 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in cash, Wizz could survive for two years even if it did not fly, Varadi said last month.
Wizz shares are trading about 1% below their all-time high, at 4,444 pence. They posted their single largest daily gain on Nov. 9, when Norwegian announced it might not survive the winter.
"SAS has flown in Norway for almost 75 years," a SAS spokeswoman said. "It is one of our home markets and where the aviation industry is extremely competitive, something it will continue to be also in the future."
"We have respect for all competition. SAS will continue to be an airline with Scandinavian conditions."
($1 = 0.8348 euros)
(Additonal reporting by Anna Ringstrom in STOCKHOLM and Victoria Klesty in OSLO; editing by Barbara Lewis)