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New Icelandic carrier makes a play in low-cost transatlantic market


Airbus passengers take off from Play, an Icelandic low-fare airline.


Play, a low-fare startup airline from Iceland, announced a new transatlantic flight out of Stewart International, New Windsor, New York. The service will begin on June 9. (Stewart is approximately 65 miles northeast of New York City.

Play launched its nonstop service last July from Reykjavik (Iceland) to London’s Stansted Airport. It is now the latest low-fare carrier to try to offer heavily discounted services across the Atlantic.

The immediate Icelandic forebear of Play, Wow Air, went bankruptAfter starting long-haul flights to India and the West Coast of America, Primera Air was unable to continue operations in 2019. Primera Air Denmark suffered a similar fate for 2018. Norway’s low-cost competitor Norwegian, meanwhile, abandoned long-haul intercontinental operationsIn January 2021, to be able to concentrate on European and Middle Eastern route.

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Now, Play will debut flights from the U.S. to Reykjavik — and onward from there to 22 other European cities — on April 20 with flights from Baltimore/Washington International Airport, followed by Boston Logan starting May 11 using narrow-body Airbus A320neo and A321neo planes. Play is advertising its new European connecting flights with prices as low as $109 for one-way. associate editor Kenneth Kiesnoski spoke with Play CEO Birgir Jonsson — formerly with Wow Air himself — on what it’s like to start an airline amid a pandemic and how Play plans to succeed where others have failed.

(Editor’s Note: The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.)

Kenneth Kiesnoski. Maintaining a low-fare transatlantic service has been difficult due to the failures and woes of airline like Iceland. Air show. Play can succeed where other companies have failed

Birgir JonssonPlay and Wow actually have a lot in common. A lot of our pilots and key managers are former Wow employees. For a time, I was Wow’s CEO.

This is why we are very familiar with this story. Wow, which was actually a fantastic company, was doing really well with the same business model as we are. [now] operating. Wow began operating large-bodied jets such Airbus 330s in the early 1990s. [U.S.]West Coast, basically the long-haul. [and] low-cost thing — which is a hill that many good soldiers have fallen on many times.

Birgir Jonsson CEO, Reykjavik’s Iceland-based low cost airline Play.


KK: Not just Wow, Primera Air and Norwegian have stopped flying long-haul.

BJ: Right. Right. [Play was]had raised approximately $90 million to fund its founding and continued to implement a business model that created a hub-and spoke system linking the U.S. with Europe, with an Iceland stop. [mixed]With point-to-point traffic from Iceland. In June, we started the European portion of our network. We ran it for six more months until commercial sales were made to the U.S.

Play’s funding is better, which I believe will make it more successful than Wow. [whereas]One man owned Wow. It grew way too quickly, was too large, and was too fragile. Now we are listed. This type of venture has different governance requirements. It is more structured, focused, and more organized. Additionally, we know what the risks are. Now we will just focus on the established concept and the market.

KK: Travel was hit hard by the pandemic, but business travel suffered more, since work and meetings moved online. You are low-cost so will your target audience be leisure or business travellers?

BJ:We are targeting VFRs in a marketing sense. [visiting friends and relatives]Both leisure and business markets. Having said that, I always have a pretty difficult time defining what business travel is because when someone says “business travel,” most people think of someone flying business class, drinking champagne — some premium service.

There are many reasons people travel, and not just to visit friends or go on vacation. Attending conferences [or] training, for example — these kinds of things. You know that Davos is not just for high-powered CEOs. Our goal is to provide a simple, no-frills product with low prices that can be used easily. It doesn’t offer a business-class product; instead, it is an all-economy option. For anyone who wants a quick, simple, affordable, safe and timely experience, whether it’s a business or an individual, we can help.

KK: Do you think Play is as low-cost as Frontier, Ryanair or Spirit? Apart from the price, how do you differentiate from Icelandair flag carrier?

BJ: Ryanair has shorter flights than other airlines. It takes me five hours to fly from New York to London. It is necessary to be comfortable in your seat, and have enough leg room. This is not a hardcore approach. We are a mix of both a low-cost or ultra-low cost product.

Icelandair has a product almost identical to ours. We don’t offer a business class. Both airlines charge for meals, beverages, luggage, etc. Both legacy airlines and low-cost ones are becoming more popular. There are only five things on my list that could justify the price.

KK. How has Covid affected your launch plans. I’m aware of around 10 new carriers that were launched last year in the midst of the pandemic. Have you taken the time to slow down, or used it as an opportunity for fine-tuning?

BJ: Covid was expected to end within 12-18 months. We began operations with that view. A runway is essential for any airline to be started, particularly one that crosses the Atlantic. First, hire staff. Then train them. Position yourself in the market.

A ramp-up would have been essential. So we have never been focused on financial performance in the first six to eight— or even 12 — months. It was much more important to have an airline built, everything running smoothly, and be ready for the day when all the business models are realized. This will happen in spring, when we launch our U.S. Airways. [flights].

Do you think Covid should have ended sooner? Or would I prefer more passengers? It’s true. But we managed to get a 53% load factor and 100,000 passengers — in a country of 400,000 people, in the middle of Covid. That is something we are very happy with. Although we’d love to have had 80% of the time, that is not possible. This was okay.

To promote tourism in places such as the Landmannalaugar Valley, Icelandic airlines offer transatlantic travelers free stopsovers at Keflavik (Iceland).

Anastasiia Shavshyna | E+ | Getty Images

KK: Many low-cost airlines often fly to secondary urban airports. You’re already flying to Boston Logan and BWI, so you should consider Stewart for New York.

BJ: New York is one the most competitive global markets. We are determined to attract passengers by offering low fares. You can also offer very low fares [only]Low costs are an advantage. Stewart is a good choice. You can use it as a low-cost airport. If you don’t have the same costs as everybody else, you can’t be low-fare. Then you will subsidize tickets. This is exactly what Wow did in its case.

There is also little competition in upstate New York. At the moment, there aren’t any international flights. [But]Many attractions are available, as well as many businesses. The real estate market has seen a boom in recent years. The market here is very different than New York City. Stewart is my favorite person. Baltimore is an interesting story because we in Europe don’t talk much about Baltimore. We’d say, “Washington.” BWI is quite far from the city, but Maryland has a client there.

Play: Play, like Icelandair, offers passengers a complimentary stopover in Reykjavik. This helps local tourism. Pre-Covid there was opposition in popular tourist destinations to over-tourism. Your take on it?

BJ: [The stopover]This is a long-standing tradition and something we offer. This is a very interesting aspect of Icelandic tourism. This is the second largest industry in Iceland after fisheries. It’s a wonderful place with so many natural wonders. But visitors tend to gather around the same spots, whereas if you drove for 20 minutes you’d see the same thing — but you’re completely alone.

The discussion is ongoing in most popular places. The problem is that locals cannot get a seat at these restaurants. Tourists are the reason Iceland could not sustain such high-quality bars, restaurants and clubs. In that sense, Covid was a good thing — if you can call a pandemic a good thing. Everything stopped one day. You don’t know what you really have until it is gone.