NEW YORK – “I’m not a fan of airlines” said Birgir Jonsson, Play Airlines CEO. It was something I wasn’t expecting from an airline CEO, who worked previously for other airlines.
“I’ve been CEO of a few companies here before in Iceland and abroad. I was a Deputy CEO at WOW Air and I was already a CEO at Icelandic Express. “
Play airlines was founded in 2019. The founders believed that Play could retain the spirit and vision of Wow but under a different name a year into operation.
“We had our first operating profit in Q3 2022 (USD 1.3m EBIT) We’ve already given the market some guidance that next year our turnover will be $310-330 Million turnover. The number of passengers in 2023 are estimated to be 1.5 – 1.7 million.
PHOTO: Birgir Jonsson, Play Airlines CEO. All Photo Credits: Luca Zocche
WOW’s image and vision still mean a lot to a start-up like PLAY which has ingrained some of it as its corporate culture.
“WOW was a great company. They did really well up until that point. The A330s were the visual part of the failure. The other things that did fail is that you basically lose control of your cost. You’re always trying to invest in the future and that you sacrifice something today to gain for tomorrow. If you do that you for a while you don’t get to tomorrow” said Birgir.
“WOW was owned by one guy. Financed by one guy. It was really big but in a way it was underfinanced. This is why we’re a listed company on the stock exchange. Our approach is much more disciplined, maybe a little more boring but more measured.”
“Keeping our ice on the ball and making sure we benefit from the good lesson from WOW. We can avoid the downfall, and bad lessons which were really expensive.”
“Skuli Mogensen (Founder of WOW Air) is my friend and friend of many people here in the company. I have a lot of admiration for him but he isn’t a shareholder in the company nor plays any part in management. He has the X factor. Skuli is your typical founder CEO which I’m not.”
“How are Icelanders different to other countries when it comes to choosing between two native carriers?” I asked.
“Loyalty between two big carriers is quite big in such a small society as Iceland. Icelandair is a very big and strong company. At the end of the day competition is good. We have a history of 20 years of some other airline functioning apart from the other 30 foreign carriers flying to Iceland.”
“At the end of the day it’s a very deep rooted conflict. I can justify that by pointing out that in the summer, 30%-35% of Icelanders who went abroad in the summer chose PLAY.”
“It’s not like you’re going up against a religious cult. If we weren’t here though all of them probably would have flown on Icelandair instead”
“Baltimore has been tremendous for us that we are strengthening ourselves in that region (by starting daily flights to Washington Dulles in April 2023). We’re opportunistic.”
“We have to be mindful of the fact that a lot of our customers are not repeated. They are going from Europe to the U.S. We don’t see them fly with us many times a month or monthly. We might in the future have a scheme or program to reward our frequent customers.”
“For the next couple of years we will have only that one connection bank. “
“Operating to other Icelandic airports isn’t something we’ve looked at or are interested in. There are operational issues in Egilsstaðir Airport and Akureyri International Airport.”
“It doesn’t really suit our business model of being a network, or fit our hub & spoke in Keflavik. It isn’t something we’re interested in the for the imminent future. Our traffic is roughly one third. One third Icelanders, one third tourists and one third connecting passengers. “
“We have relatively long flights. In our A321’s we’re increasing our seat numbers from 192 to 214. We’re not going up to 239 which for example Wizz is doing. It’s not a product that we can offer people on such long legs. Trade-off between relatively long flights and comfort.”
“You’re taking a start-up company from 0 turnover last year. There were 40-50 employees when I showed up in April last year. We have over 300 employees currently
, turning around $140M this year and around $310-330M next year.”
“Within the space of 2 to 2 and a half years there is this tremendous growth. It puts unbelievable pressure on the management team, staff, on the infrastructure of the company.”
“We’ve taken the growth but don’t lose control of it. This is why we’re focused on old school business techniques. Every dollar and cent counts. That’s the way to succeed in this business. It’s a very brutal business.”
Stewart Airport stats
We had the opportunity to put PLAY’s strategy to the test of its success at Stewart by flying the route and questioning each passenger. Birgir told us further how successful his operation has been.
“It has been great. People thought we were a bit crazy when we decided to do this. Norwegian did it for a number of years and it was really successful for them. They had other problems.”
“The MAX issues and other issues. The load factors into the airport were really good and a lot of interesting things have happened in that area since COVID. You see a migration of relatively well to do professionals from this area to the Hudson Valley.”
“If you travel around that area there is a lot of new cafes, hotels, boutique guest houses, breweries, shopping in the valley and you’re only 1 hour and a half away from the city.”
“It’s a completely different market actually. There’s a few million people that live in that area where Stewart is not a secondary airport for them.
“It’s the main airport. It’s always how you classify your market. Do you want to go into an airport that has almost no international service or do you want to go into JFK or Newark where you’re competing with a lot of major airlines. So far this option has been the right one for us.”
On this particular flight there were 136 passengers of 174 making it a 78% load factor.
Of the 136 passengers we were able to interview 128 passengers who answered the four following questions:
Reason for Travel
Origin of Journey
Where are you travelling to after arriving at Stewart?
OG 121 to New York Stewart boarded on time at 14:50 for its 15:30 departure from Keflavik. Today’s flight was on an A320 with 174 seats.
I took my seat in 2F which offered generous recline which I was very happy about as PLAY is a low-cost airline.
Seat 2F reclined.
A great amount of legroom considering it’s an LCC.
The onboard menu offered a lot of Icelandic options. There was even a special Christmas menu being offered with Icelandic and Nordic delicacies.
View from 2F.
View of Hudson River as we approach Stewart.
Due to Stewart having barely any flights (we were the only flight at the time of arrival), we arrived an incredible 30 minutes earlier.
View of the aircraft as we get off the airstairs.
As we entered the brand new Customs facilities it was a breeze. From getting our luggage 10 minutes after entering the building to entering the bus only 20 minutes off the aircraft.
The process was very smooth and relaxed compared to any other long haul flight I have taken. The only other trip it could have been comparable to was when I flew from Stewart to Edinburgh on Norwegian’s 737 back in 2017.
Only 25-30 passengers were on the bus today making our trip quite comfortable with many seats to offer.
Play offers a very attractive market for those who wish to have a smooth airport to New York City or travel to the likes of New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
With the upcoming refurbishment of aircraft to have softer seats, tablet holders and USB ports, PLAY is on its way towards delivering a low-cost and high quality product.
Stewart stands out as one of its best destinations due to the advantages it offers. Having covered many airlines this has been one of the most interesting operations to cover and is definite to succeed.
With Play offering $99 one-way fares to Iceland in January and February the airline has a lot of promise ahead, especially its Stewart operation.
“It’s not on our minds to disrupt Icelandair. We’re in fierce competition but it’s not emotional” said Birgir.
The author and AviationSource would like to thank PLAY Airlines for their help in making this possible.