Remembering WOW Air: How Cheap Transatlantic Fares Ended In Huge Losses

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Since March 28th, 2019, Iceland has only had one airline major airline: flag carrier Icelandair. On this date, WOW Air went bankrupt and ended its operations. This left many passengers either stranded or scrambling to rearrange future travel. Before this eventual collapse, however, the airline did have some shining moments. Let’s take a look back at WOW Air’s short-lived operations from its birth in 2011 until the end in 2019.

WOW Air
WOW Air officially ceased its operations on March 28th, 2019. Photo: Getty Images

Humble beginnings

Icelandic entrepreneur Skúli Mogensen founded WOW Air in November 2011. The airline branded itself as a “happy low-fare long-haul airline based in Iceland,” according to its website. The airline’s main selling point was its competitive low fares, frequently selling transatlantic flights for double-digit prices.

In November 2011, the airline began with a single phone in a small office selling flights from its hub at Keflavík International Airport in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. Its initial destinations were Paris Charles de Gaulle, London Gatwick, Copenhagen Kastrup, and Berlin Schönefeld. The airline also served eight additional seasonal destinations. The airline’s inaugural flight took place on May 31, 2012, from Reykjavík to Paris.

WOW Air CEO Mogensen was named Icelandic Businessman of the Year in 2011. He received the same award again in 2016. The airline maintained stability throughout its European destinations, and in 2014 it became the most punctual Icelandic carrier. That year, the airline carried 490,000 passengers on its fleet of four leased Airbus planes.

WOW Air Bankrupt
WOW Air founder and CEO, Skúli Mogensen. Photo: WOW Air

Global expansion

Eventually, WOW Air began to look further afield, targeting the fiercely competitive transatlantic market. Having been cleared for service to the USA, the carrier  began serving Boston Logan International and Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall in October 2014. With further expansion into the United States and Canada, as well as additional European destinations, the airline served 3.5 million passengers in 2018.

These transatlantic operations were not just aimed at North Americans looking to visit Iceland and vice versa. Indeed, the airline also looked to infiltrate the transatlantic market serving mainland Europe, offering passengers low-cost flights to the USA and Canada with a change in Reykjavík. Flag carrier Icelandair also built its business around a similar service model.

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Fun and friendly onboard service

The airline maintained a strong social brand with unusually fun aspects for the industry standard in both their ground and in-flight experience. Onboard, for example, the button to call the flight attendant was labeled, “Honk if you’re hungry.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, in 2018, the airline crafted its own signature beer to celebrate the Annual Icelandic Beer Festival in Reykjavík. According to Aviation24, the airline produced ‘WOW Beer’ in conjunction with Danish brewer To Øl. Available both at the festival and on WOW Air flights at the time, the beer had “a crunchy malty character with a hint of floral, hoppy aromas.”

This was an innovative move by the airline, and other carriers have since used the concept. For example, British Airways teamed up with Scottish craft brewery BrewDog to launch ‘Speedbird 100‘ as part of its centenary celebrations. However, despite such promising innovation, dark days were soon to follow for WOW Air.

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British Airways Boeing 747
British Airways followed in WOW Air innovative footsteps by launching a commemorative beer in 2019, its centenary year. Photo: Getty Images

Financial woes

The airline experienced rocky patches beginning in October 2018, eventually leading to speculation that its eventual collapse was imminent. Several airlines jumped in to attempt to rescue the failing WOW Air, but all acquisition attempts fell through. In November 2018, CEO Mogensen even injected $6.2 million of his own cash into the failing company in an attempt to save it.

The airline tried to scale things back in order to “simplify operations, return to [its] low-cost roots and focus on ultra-cheap flights,” according to its website’s summary of 2018 operations. This slimming down included canceling routes and returning four leased aircraft. Icelandair tried to acquire the low-cost carrier twice with no luck. Indigo Partners also stepped in with an offer to keep the airline afloat, but this attempt eventually fell through as well.

WOW Air
A fun and friendly approach characterized WOW Air’s onboard service. Source: WOW Air

The final months

Sometimes the saying “all publicity is good publicity” doesn’t hold true. In its final months, WOW Air saw almost constant negative publicity, along with speculation that the airline would ground and cancel all flights at any moment. This didn’t help the airline hold itself up during its numerous takeover attempts.

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After Icelandair’s second attempt to buy the airline failed, WOW Air began canceling dozens of flights starting on March 25th, 2019. Its final operation and announcement of collapse eventually occurred on March 28th.

In a letter sent on the day of the airline’s collapse, CEO Mogensen told staff:

 “I will never forgive myself for not taking action sooner as it’s evident that WOW was an amazing airline and we were on the right track to do great things again. You all deserve so much more and I am so sorry to put you in this position. I want to thank our passengers who stood by us from day one, our partners around the world, and not least relevant authorities. We all tried our best until the very end.”

Where are WOW Air’s aircraft now?

At the time of its collapse, WOW Air’s fleet consisted of Airbus A321-200 and Airbus A321neo aircraft. According to Planespotters.net, these aircraft have since found new leases of life at various carriers worldwide. The two Airbus A320neo aircraft, for example, went to Turkish low-cost airline Onur Air. Condor also took on one of the collapsed airline’s Airbus A321s, TF-GMA, now registered as D-AIAI.

Air Canada Rouge
Air Canada Rouge took on eight former WOW Air Airbus A321s. However, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has seen much of its fleet become grounded. Photo: Getty Images

Three of the A321s ended up at leasing companies Bocomm (two) and ALC (one), with the remaining eight transferred to Air Canada Rouge. This airline is the low-cost subsidiary of the country’s flag carrier.

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Two of these had been named after Norse mythical figures, namely TF-DAD and TF-MOM (now C-GHQI and C-GHQG respectively). Rather aptly, their names were ‘Óðinn’ and ‘Freyja, Nordic Goddess of Love.’

There have been announcements regarding a return of a new WOW Air. However, the rise of the global health crisis could have impacted plans. We will have to wait and see what the future holds.

What are your thoughts about WOW Air? Let us know what you think in the comment section. 

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