Earlier this year, the Icelandic Tourist Board released numbers that suggested the country’s lengthy tourism boom may be over. This was followed by an Arion Bank report that estimated that the dearly departed WOW Air was bringing in roughly 40% of tourists from North America. Unsurprisingly, when WOW Air went bankrupt, those numbers dropped.
While this sounds like the makings of an economic crisis, the numbers may not accurately reflect the state of tourism. According to Kristján Sigurjónsson, editor in chief at turisti.is, “Statistics show that the decrease in the number of overnight stays by foreigners is much less than the decrease in numbers at the airport.” That means that people are still coming to stay in the country, but they are not using the country as a layover point as often as they used to.
Tourists AKA visitors
Two years ago, when the prospect of a tourism bust first came into question, Kristján asked Airport Authorities if they had been overestimating how many tourists were coming to Iceland. They looked into it and found that there were, in fact, many self-connecting passengers at Keflavík Airport who were wrongly counted as visitors to Iceland.
“They were just going from one airline to the next, flying from North America to Europe and vice-versa,” he said. “This means that the number of tourists may be down, but not in such a magnitude as reported by the airport. In fact, after WOW Air went under earlier this year, the tourism sector saw a meagre decrease of 0.2%, while car rental services saw an increase of about 2%.”
Now that WOW Air is slated to be revived, and the new low-cost WAB Air is in the financial stages of its startup, it looks like that line of reasoning may prove itself once again. “More flights bring in more guests,” Kristján said. “But at the same time, it’s difficult to estimate the influence of the new WOW Air because we know so little about their plans.” The same could be said about WAB.
But the new WOW Air does seem ambitious. Michele Roosevelt Edwards, the face of the company, has spoken extensively about her plans to make Keflavík a European hub for flights in and out of Iceland connecting to Europe. However, she only has one destination seemingly set in stone, and that is Washington Dulles. A spokesperson for the airport in Washington Dulles said earlier this month that the airport has not heard from Michele or her team since August. They said, “there are currently no flights scheduled with WOW Airlines out of Dulles International and no new air service to announce.”
Michele has also spoken extensively about extending more perks to those flying economy class, saying that they create the biggest share of income for airlines, and they should get their own lounge. While this sentiment is heartwarming, it isn’t exactly true, adding to the uncertainty around what, exactly, the new WOW is planning. Studies from YADA say that 50% of income from transatlantic flights are from premium passengers, meaning economy passengers definitely do not create the biggest part of the income for airlines.
Questions without answers
The revival of WOW Air raises more questions than answers. First, we don’t know where she plans to fly. While she told RÚV that WOW Air’s itinerary will look a lot like it did before, it will be difficult to get into London, for example. Heathrow is completely full, and Gatwick is nearly full. Stansted and Luton could be an option, but they aren’t particularly connected with transatlantic flights.
We also don’t know when ticket sales will begin. The team allegedly planned to begin sales over a month ago, but until recently, wowair.com still displayed a notice that ticket sales ceased due to bankruptcy. As of this printing, the website displays the company logo, with no tickets available to purchase. However, shortly after Washington Dulles announced they had not been in contact with WOW Air since August, the airline announced that the inaugural flight had been delayed until December, with ticket sales beginning in November.
Hope for the future
All that said, we shouldn’t be too hard on the new WOW Air. Starting an airline so late in the year is difficult. “Icelandair always loses money on the fourth and first quarter,” Kristján noted. Starting ahead of that period is not something he would advise. Yet WAB Air also announced they would begin selling tickets in the fall, and no one has criticised them for it. In fact, they have gone dark in the press over the last month or so.
The Grapevine reached out to WAB Air, but the CEO would not give us an interview until they were up and running as a company. He said that would be in mid-October. Whether media silence is the key to success in the startup of an airline out of Iceland remains to be seen.
Despite the doubts and fears that are circulating around these new airlines, one still hopes that they succeed. Two new airlines would be a boon to Iceland’s tourism industry and economy.
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