Great Britain

Why the last thing the world needs right now is another Icelandic airline

Rather too often when covering aviation, I find myself thinking: what were they smoking when they decided to put money into that?

During 2011, a trio of transatlantic business-class-only start-ups – MaxJet, Eos and Silverjet – folded in quick succession. None could compete with the frequency and frequent-flyer plans of the incumbents, particularly British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

A more recent (but pre-pandemic example) was Air France’s weird venture in devising a sub-airline for “millennials,” named Joon.

Not even the crew operating the flights could comprehend how Joon could offer “a flying experience that’s both stylish and relaxed” in a way that the “mother brand”, Air France, could – unless it was those “vitamin-filled smoothies made of 100 per cent fruit”.

When the incoming boss of Air France, Ben Smith, killed off the airline billed as “the new generation of travel,” he was scathing: “The brand was difficult to understand from the outset for customers, for employees, for markets and for investors.”

But nothing in aviation compares with the appetite for launching airlines that compete for market share with the national carrier in a country of just 360,000 souls: Iceland.

The national airline, Icelandair, has been around for decades. Besides some tough times, it has endured an implausible number of competitors.

In 2018, Icelandic-owned Primera Air went bust, blaming late deliveries from Airbus of new A321 jets, and weak demand.

The following year, it was the turn of Wow Air to go spectacularly bust – after assuring passengers and the media that there was someone waiting with a big bag of cash to bail out the airline.

Said holder of money may be behind Play, or WAB as it was previously known – standing for “We Are Back”. It was founded in 2010 by two former Wow Air executives, and plans to start flying on 24 June from London Stansted to Keflavik, the international airport serving the capital, Reykjavik.

Even without Covid-19 draining demand for international travel, it looks an impossible task.

Since the failure of Wow, Wizz Air has moved in and is currently offering £90 return flights between Luton and Iceland in June, way below cost. Wizz can sustain those losses; Play cannot.

I always reserve the right to be wrong. Twenty-six years ago a fax arrived inviting me to the launch of a start-up that proposed to sell tickets from Luton to Glasgow for £29 one-way – at the time a ridiculously cheap price. It appears easyJet survived and thrived.

Equally, I may be misjudging Play. Only time will tell – and I don’t believe we have long to wait.

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