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

As of March 28th, Iceland only has one airline carrier: Icelandair. The low-cost carrier WOW Air has gone bankrupt and ended operations, leaving many passengers either currently stranded or scrambling to rearrange future travel. WOW Air’s website states, “WOW Air has ceased operation. All WOW Air flights have been cancelled.” Before this eventual collapse, however, the airline did have some shining moments. Let’s take a look back at WOW Air’s short operations from its birth in 2011 until the end in 2019.

WOW Air Airbus A320
Wow Air’s A320 landing at is hub of Keflavik International Airport in Reykjavik, Iceland. The airline ceased all operations of March 28. Source: Milan Nykodym via Wikipedia

Humble beginnings

WOW Air began in late 2011 under the control of entrepreneur Skúli Mogensen. The airline branded itself as  “happy low-fare long-haul airline based in Iceland,” according to the website. The airline’s main selling point was the low-fare part, coming to frequently sell transatlantic flights in the double-digits.

In November 2011, the airline began with a single phone in a small office selling flights from Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Paris, London, Copenhagen and Berlin, as well as eight additional seasonal destinations. The inaugural flight took place on May 31, 2012 from KEF to Paris.

WOW Air CEO Mogensen was named Business Man of the Year in Iceland in 2011. He received the same award again in 2016.

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WOW Air Bankrupt
Skúli Mogensen. Photo: WOW Air

The airline maintained stability throughout its European destinations, and by 2014 became the most on-time carrier in Iceland. That year the airline served 490,000 guests on its fleet of four leased Airbus planes.

Global expansion

Cleared for service to the US, WOW Air began serving Boston and Washington in October 2014.

With further expansion into the United States, Canada and Europe, WOW Air served 3.5 million passengers in 2018. The airline maintained a strong social brand with unusually fun aspects for the industry standard in both their ground and in-flight experience. On board the button to call the flight attendant was labeled, “Honk if you’re hungry.” On the ground, the airline crafted their own signature beer to celebration of the Reykjavik Annual Beer Festival, according to their website. But dark days followed.

WOW Air
WOW Air maintained a friendly approach on board. Source: WOW Air

Financial woes

The airline experienced rocky patches beginning in October of last year, eventually leading to speculation this collapse was coming. Several airlines have jumped in to attempt to rescue the failing WOW Air, but all attempts of acquisition fell through. At one point last November, CEO Mogensen injected his own cash into the failing company: $6.2 million USD.

The airline tried to scale things back, in order to, “simplify operations, return to our low-cost roots and focus on ultra cheap flights,” according to their website’s summary of 2018 operations. This slimming down included canceling routes and returning four leased aircraft.

Icelandair recently tried to acquire the low-cost carrier twice with no luck. Indigo Partners stepped in with an offer to keep the airline afloat that eventually fell through as well.

The final months

Sometimes the saying, “Any publicity is good publicity,” doesn’t hold true. In the final months, WOW Air saw almost constant negative publicity and speculation that the airline would ground and cancel all flights at any moment, which didn’t help the airline hold itself up. After Icelandair’s second attempt to buy the airline failed, WOW Air began canceling dozens of flights starting on March 25, with final operation and announcement of collapse on occurring on March 28.

Farewell, WOW Air.

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