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Play: New budget Icelandic airline offers transatlantic flights

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On Wednesday, an Icelandic budget airline named Play will debut in the United States, less than a year after launching in Europe. Its inaugural flight will travel from Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport to Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, the same route another low-fare carrier flew before its abrupt collapse in 2019.

In many ways, Play’s business model is similar to Wow Air’s: It flies from the United States to a constellation of destinations in Europe, connects through Iceland and charges for any and all extras, such as carry-on bags, seat assignments and bottled water. However, the carrier hopes the resemblance ends there.

The U.S. gained three new low-budget airlines last year. We flew them all.

“We came about after the collapse of Wow, from a group of people who used to work for Wow and saw the mistakes that were made,” said Birgir Jonsson, chief executive of Play and a former deputy chief executive at Wow. “We are a completely different animal, although maybe the look and feel of the brand and the approach are similar.”

The airline, which took off last June with a flight to London Stansted, serves nearly two dozen European destinations from its Icelandic hub. It will expand its U.S. presence in the coming months — to Boston Logan on May 11; Stewart International, in New York’s Hudson Valley, on June 9; and Florida’s Orlando International on Oct. 1. The company owns six Airbus A320neo and A321neo planes, which are evenly divided between transatlantic and intra-European routes. It will gradually increase its fleet to 10 planes next year, a dozen in 2024 and 15 in 2025. Jonsson said it will also add more dots to its map along the East Coast of North America, but not at the speed or stretch of Wow.

“Wow was a strong company until they grew too quickly and overextended themselves and began to operate wide-bodied aircraft flying from Iceland to L.A. to India,” Jonsson said. “We started slow and built our operation during the difficult covid period, but our aim has always been to launch the U.S. operation. The geographical location of Iceland is really advantageous to connecting Europe and the U.S.”

Think bringing one carry-on for a two-week trip is hard? Try only packing 11 pounds.

Budget airlines have succeeded on short hauls (see Allegiant, Ryanair) but stumbled on costlier cross-oceanic routes (see Wow, Norwegian Air). “The model has never worked on transatlantic flights,” said Edward Russell, who covers the airline industry for Skift. One of the airlines’ biggest challenges is attracting passengers during slow travel periods. Empty seats can deliver an especially hard punch to carriers that charge below standard fare. “The truth is anyone can fill a plane in July and August,” he said, “but how does it fill planes in winter?”

Play could draw travelers out of hibernation — or hiding — with its low fares. Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, searched for nonstop flights from Washington to Iceland in early June and discovered that Play consistently beat out the other carriers: $408 vs. $538 on Icelandair, for instance. “Play has the cheapest flights,” he said. “Even with fees, you will come out on top.”

Keyes said the airline’s supplemental fees are “not outrageous,” but they can add up. The a la carte prices are based on several factors, such as the number of flight segments or legs, the destination’s season (high or low) and when you purchase the extras (while booking the flight, post-transaction or at the airport).

On a BWI-to-Iceland flight in May, for example, carry-on with priority boarding costs $33.15, and a checked bag goes for $43.35 each way. Though all seating is economy class, passengers can choose the pitch, or amount of space between seat backs. Prices range from about $5 to $41, and the aisle, middle and window seats in each row cost the same. Items on the food and beverage cart range from $1 for Icelandic water to about $4 for Icelandic chocolate with toffee and sea salt to nearly $10 for a vegan wrap with falafel and date chutney.

In-flight entertainment and WiFi won’t cost a krona — because Play does not offer either, at least for now. Jonsson said he does not want to charge passengers for a substandard product and is waiting for less-glitchy service.

Keyes is cautiously optimistic about Play’s ability to avoid the fate of Wow and applauds its initiative, especially during such volatile times. “I’m glad to see them take this risk,” he said. “It’s a benefit to cheap-flight lovers everywhere.”

Russell, however, is more circumspect. “I would fly Play this summer,” he said. “I don’t think it is going to go away overnight — yet.”

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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