UPDATE 1-Wizz Air expands in western Europe as crisis brings opportunities

(Adds CEO comments, detail, background)

LONDON, May 29 (Reuters) - Hungary’s Wizz Air is adding new flights between Britain and Spain and opening a base in Italy as it sees opportunities arising from the coronavirus crisis which is forcing competitors to contract.

Wizz’s expansion comes as rival airlines announce job cuts and shrink their fleets to survive the pandemic, which for the last ten weeks has shut down air travel, leaving them struggling without revenues.

But Wizz has a strong balance sheet and while it has cut 19% of its staff, it is sticking with plans to grow its fleet and was one of the first airlines to restart flights.

“We are one of the very few airlines in Europe which can deliver growth capacity when everyone else is cutting and contracting capacity,” Wizz Chief Executive Jozsef Varadi said in an interview.

Wizz, Europe’s no.3 budget carrier, said on Friday it was opening a new base at Milan Malpensa after announcing on Thursday new routes between London Luton and Spanish holiday resorts, taking the fight directly to Luton-headquartered easyJet.

EasyJet, the continent’s second biggest budget carrier after leader Ryanair, has a strong position flying British holidaymakers to Spain. It said on Thursday it would cut its aircraft numbers and axe 30% of its staff.

Varadi said Wizz would retain its primarily eastern and central European focus, but that it would be opportunistic in western Europe.

“Many airports are approaching us,” Varadi said.

He said Wizz was continuing talks with London Gatwick about expanding there, and that it believed its low ticket prices meant it could stimulate demand despite forecasts that the travel slump will last years.

Wizz, whose Abu Dhabi-based joint venture is due to start flying later this year, is also opening new bases at Larnaca in Cyprus, Lviv in Ukraine and Tirana in Albania. (Reporting by Sarah Young; Additonal reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest; Editing by James Davey and Jan Harvey)