A new PLAYer in town – Jay Selman experiences the inaugural Boston flight to Iceland

by Jay Selman, Travelling Editor.

Over the years, Iceland has been associated with low-cost airlines. 60 years ago, Iceland-based Loftleidir connected the United States to Europe via Reykjavik and it can probably be said that it was a favorite among the backpacking crowd. In fact, Loftleidir was the last scheduled airline to operate propeller driven aircraft across the Atlantic. No one really cared that it was slow and cramped, with over 200 people squeezing into a Canadair CL–44J. It was cheap. Fast-forward some 50 years, and the rebranded airline, Icelandair, still offers lower prices via Reykjavik than most legacy transatlantic airlines.

"400 Jet Prop", "Leifur Eiriksson", delivered May 28, 1964

Above Copyright Photo: Loftleidir Icelandic Airlines (1st) Canadair CL-44D4-8 TF-LLF (msn 35) (Bruce Drum Collection). Image: 957552.

In 2013, a group of investors breathed life into a new low cost, low fare Icelandic airline, which they named WOW. WOW kicked off with a bang, determined to set the world on fire. The airline rapidly expanded and, at its peak, operated a fleet of 20 airplanes; 3 A320s, 14 A321s, and a trio of A330-300s. The niche carrier far outgrew its niche, and in March 2019, WOW was gone.

The dream, however, was not. While WOW ultimately failed, the concept remained alive and well. Birgir Jónsson, CEO of PLAY (above), explains to World Airline News, “PLAY was formed in 2021 and has since then grown steadily. PLAY flew more than 100,000 passengers across Europe between June 2021 and January 2022, with an on-time arrival rate over 90%. PLAY was founded to make travel more affordable and accessible and that means allowing customers to decide what they need for their trip.”

“The comparison of PLAY to WOW is understandable,” he continues, “but there are key differences. While WOW was a successful company initially, it suffered when it deviated from its business model to expand its global reach by serving destinations such as India, Israel, and the West Coast of the United States. Meanwhile, PLAY is focused on its vision and the efficiency of being small, flexible, and nimble. At PLAY, we are sticking to narrow-body Airbus Neos. That helps to keep things very standardized and uncomplicated. The Neos and A321LRs to come will give us as much range and as many seats as we need for several years to come.”

Jónsson has extensive experience in international management and operations. He was Ossur‘s Regional Director in Asia, based in Hong Kong, CEO of Iceland Express and later Deputy CEO of WOW air. He lived and worked in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, where he was CEO of Infopress Group, one of the largest printing companies in Eastern Europe. Birgir was the CEO of Iceland Post and has also been involved in many projects in the field of restructuring and transformation across a diverse range of industries.

Jónsson adds, “PLAY seeks to enable passengers to see the world, but not without considering its environmental impact. PLAY is being developed with sustainability initiatives and benchmarks in place to track and reduce fuel consumption, offset carbon emissions, and limit waste. PLAY offers affordable fares with a simple and streamlined approach to service, enabling travelers to pay less and ‘play more’, hence our name.”

While a fair percentage of PLAY’s passengers are connecting through Reykjavík (Keflavik) to other destinations, tthe carrier is also actively selling Iceland as a destination. Jónsson says, “We are looking at offering through fares that will include a stopover in Iceland for a couple of days.   We recognize that Iceland is not the first country that people think of when they think of transatlantic travel. Instead, it is a country that is supposed to be skipped over on their way to and from Europe. We would like to change that perception. Indeed, more Americans are discovering Iceland. PLAY’s efforts are directed toward continuing that trend.” To that point, I have to add as a personal note that I can’t remember an international airport that was as easy and FAST to get in and out of as Keflavik. Entering the country, I was through customs and immigration within about 15 minutes. It took even less time to go through security and passport control on departure.

While in Reykjavik, the PR folks at PLAY organized a couple of excursions to show off some of the highlights of the island. My personal favorite was “Fly Over Iceland.” Picture an IMAX with moving seats, a little water spray, and even some other sensory enhancements, and you get something of an idea of this spectacle. It is a total immersion experience.

To be fair, PLAY Is a low-cost, no-frills airline. Jónsson explains, “Rather than spending on travel extras, PLAY passengers can instead spend their budget on the meaningful experiences, dining, and excursions that make a trip memorable — or even add a stop to another destination along the way. PLAY offers travelers affordable fares, reliable flights, convenience, and flexibility. PLAY’s pay-for-what-you-need model keeps flight fares affordable, allowing travelers to customize their flight experience with the upgrades they need such as a carry-on, checked bag, special bags for items such as golf sets or strollers, in-flight meals, seats with extra legroom, cancellation protection, and more.”

The company offers fares as low as $340 round-trip between Boston and Reykjavík. “Better” seats will cost you more. You will pay for a checked bag, and you will pay for a roll aboard-sized carry-on bag. Sandwiches will cost you $9.50, or $12.50 if you want to add a soft drinks and chocolate bar. A beer will cost you $9.50 and even coffee is $3 a cup. Road warriors beware. The A321s have no Wi-Fi, and not even power ports. Jónsson says, “PLAY has not received much pushback on Wi-Fi and power outlets on board. Wi-Fi and power ports are not features the airline will pursue anytime soon, with the focus being to provide lower prices than competitors.”

On the plus side, leg room was surprisingly roomy. PLAY’s A321s hold 192 passengers; its A320s are configured for 175 seats with slightly less generous seat pitch. However, Jónsson says, “Seat densification on PLAY’s A321 fleet is a key step in making the flights more environmentally friendly and keeping costs low. During the winter season, PLAY’s existing A321s will be modified from the current seat count of 192 seats to 214 seats, which will both lower the unit cost for the A321 fleet by 7%. Post rollout, PLAY A321s will have 214 seats and A320s will have 174-180 seats, and PLAY will offer three different seat pitches.”

At this point, either aircraft can be flown with a crew of four flight attendants, helping to keep things standardized. This also allows for a greater degree of flexibility. In theory, aircraft could be switched to meet the load requirements in a specific market on a specific day. Once the A321s are reconfigured, they will require five flight attendants. The crew of flight attendants that I observed on both of my flights were all young, enthusiastic, and exceptionally pleasant. And since they are all veterans of WOW, they all were very well trained and knowledgeable about the airline. Great PR!

I enjoyed a nice chat with the flight crew on the flight back to Boston. Not surprisingly, all pilots and flight attendants so far have come from WOW. And why not? As the captain told me, “We had a well-trained and enthusiastic workforce at WOW. As PLAY ramped up, it made sense to hire people who required minimal training. Naturally, we were all sad to see the demise of WOW, and we are grateful for the opportunity to again enjoy using our skills. We enjoy a family-like atmosphere here, where there is no real hierarchy to speak of. As an example, I speak with the COO on a regular basis. Not necessarily to discuss business, but to exchange pleasantries. That is a wonderful environment in which to work.” By the way, since all of the company’s routes are under eight hours flying time, all flights operate with two pilots.

The flight attendants with whom I spoke echoed that sentiment. One of them told me, “We fill out a report after every flight. What went right, and what went wrong. Those reports go directly to the appropriate department head where every one is read and acted upon. In fact, there have been a couple of times when I have seen change as soon as the next day, based on my report. When you feel like people are listening to you, it gives you a feeling of empowerment and that in turn makes you more engaged in your job. It is a win-win situation.” Jónsson adds, “In a recent employee engagement survey that was conducted in September by Gallup, PLAY employees report high job satisfaction, which helps us stand out in the market, maintain labor security, and attract applicants.”

According to Jónsson, “The goal is to focus on PLAY as a low-cost carrier between the U.S. and Europe. PLAY has been on a fast growth path since flights began in 2021, reaching 22 European destinations. These unique destinations were selected strategically to appeal to travelers seeking affordable travel to top tourist locations including London, Paris, and Dublin, as well as the hidden gems such as Bologna, Trondheim, Gothenburg, and more. With flight bookings strong and a forecast for increased travel demand, PLAY entered the U.S. market to offer its reliable, low-cost flights to U.S. passengers, as well as to connect Europeans to key North American destinations.”

PLAY began selling tickets for flights from Boston, Baltimore, and New York airports in 2021, and flights began rolling out this spring. The airline has plans to continue growing its team and scaling operations to serve new North American destinations over the next few years.

Birgir Jónsson tells World Airline News, “Years ago, the suggestion to launch an airline during a pandemic would have been crazy. But for PLAY, the pandemic has been a rare opportunity for a successful launch. In 2021, PLAY was listed on the NASDAQ North Market in Iceland. With the proper funding, PLAY was able to tap into the travel surge last spring and summer, which is an anticipation again this year. The company has set out on a long-term strategy to create a strong company, making investments in corporate culture, sustainability, and key elements that will keep PLAY’s costs low.”

He continues, “The pandemic has been an opportunity for PLAY to grow. PLAY was able to secure Airbus A321neo and A320neo aircraft. We also had access to specialists and travel experts who were available to join the company without having to buy them out of positions at other airlines. With a dynamic market and the ongoing factors from COVID-19, PLAY is focused on data-driven decisions about growth to new destinations, maintaining profitability, and maintaining the flexibility and affordability of its service.”

He continues, “While flights from the U.S. stop in Keflavik before reaching a final destination, PLAY passengers are eligible to book free long layovers in Reykjavik. Travelers can visit two unique destinations in the same trip. This feature isn’t available yet in the booking engine, so passengers can contact a PLAY agent who can set it up for them.”

Before flight operations began in the United States, PLAY operated a fleet of two A320neo and three A321neo aircraft. As PLAY has begun operations in the United States, the carrier is an A321neo. PLAY plans to add four new A320neo and a pair of A321neo aircraft in winter 2022, bringing the fleet to a total of 10 aircraft in service from spring 2023.

The A320 family is by its Type Design Certificate ETOPS capable as long as it is properly maintained, and the sufficient equipment is installed. That may vary between areas of operation, e.g., for overwater operations, life rafts and oceanic survival equipment may be required, other equipment may for example be cargo fire suppression systems. PLAY has already applied for ETOPS approval as some of its aircraft fulfill all the requirements, approval is pending in the coming weeks or months.

PLAY’s first transatlantic route was out of Baltimore on April 20. Boston followed on May 11. Service from Stewart Field in Newburgh, New York begins on June 9 and Orlando should be added in September. By mid-summer of 2022, the airline expects to have approximately 300 employees. As an interesting side note, PLAY recently advertised for new crew members, both cabin crew and flight crew for spring 2022. The company received approximately 5000 applications. 

PLAY is not seeking to join any airline alliances at this stage; however, the company is actively engaging in Virtual Interline initiatives with other low cost and full-service carriers which can complement its network and take its customers to the exciting new destinations beyond its own routes.

PLAY is a profitable airline, with its recent traffic report displaying a 72% load factor in April and an increase in passengers of over 50%. PLAY carried 36,669 passengers in April, which is a 54% increase from the previous month when passengers were 23,677. The load factor in April was 72.4% compared to 66.9% in March. The airline intends to see an exponential increase as the U.S. inaugural flights take off.

Jónsson concludes, “Our growth is in-line with the five-year framework strategy PLAY presented at the launch of the listing on the NASDAQ North Market in Iceland in April 2020. With a dynamic market and the ongoing factors from COVID-19, PLAY is focused on data-driven decisions about growth to new destinations, maintaining profitability, and maintaining the flexibility and affordability of its service.” World Airline News will be keeping a close eye on the progress of PLAY. We wish the company success.

All photos above by Jay Selman.

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