Iceland's failed ultra-low-cost carrier WOW air is poised to return with a new owner just six months after its collapse, aiming to restart service as soon as October with flights between Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD) and Reykjavik (KEF).
It's the latest turn in the
soap opera saga surrounding the Icelandic airline and several failed attempts to resurrect it. The airline grew fast, offering dirt-cheap fares between several U.S. cities and Europe before its finances took a turn for the worse. WOW circled the drain for months, cutting many routes and seeking a rescuer before closing overnight in March, canceling all its flights and leaving many travelers stranded.
But the airline officially has a new owner, and one from the U.S.: Michele Ballarin, who has some experience setting up and running airlines but is better known for helping negotiate with Somali pirates. Ballarin held a press conference in Iceland Friday to detail her plans to restart what she called “WOW 2.”
And while it's clear the WOW air name and its signature purple planes aren't going anywhere, the rest of Ballarin's vision for WOW is … a bit confusing. Here are some snippets from her announcement:
- WOW air will resume flights sometime in October, starting with service between Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD) and Reykjavik (KEF)
- Ballarin says the airline will start with two planes, eventually expanding to just 10 or 12 total – “I want to start carefully. I want to be able to build the network very slowly,” she said.
- The new WOW air will have ownership split between Iceland and the U.S. – Ballarin said: “It's cowboys meeting Vikings.”
- “We want to make flying fun again for the flying public.”
- Ballarin said the new airline plans to offer a lounge for all passengers traveling from both the U.S. and Iceland – not just those flying in premium cabins.
- The airline apparently has a three-starred Michelin chef on staff to help “bring better nutrition on board as well” (???)
Watch the full, slightly bizarre press conference below, as captured by Icelandic news outlet Visir.
It seems clear WOW 2 won't look much like its predecessor, except in name and color scheme. Will it still be a budget carrier? I don't think so.
Rather, Ballarin plans to leverage WOW's brand recognition to do something different. After all, how can you offer cheap fares when you're focusing on offering lounge access and Michelin-star designed meals?
“I think you'll see a very different approach to the experience on WOW as we take that incredible platform that its founder developed and build on that,” she said.
Ballarin was bullish it would work, given the relatively short period that has passed since WOW's collapse.
“We're not starting a brand new airline from ground zero,” she said. “That makes it for us a lot easier because the brand is known. We're really buying the brand.”
But is WOW air really the best brand? While it certainly gained a strong foothold in the airline industry fast thanks to its quirky promotions and low fares, that dissipated as the airline cut routes, failed to quickly inform passengers that their flights had been cut, then tried to strongarm travelers into accepting gift cards on a dying airline as compensation.
“I don't think the brand is damaged at all,” Ballarin insisted. “I think people miss the ability to go out to Keflavik and get on a purple airplane and fly somewhere. I know the Americans – I'm one of them – who miss flying on WOW.”
It was clear months before WOW air's collapse that its low-cost, low-fare, ultra-fast growth business model wouldn't work. With a new approach and a quirky new owner, we're not convinced this one will, either.