Is Iceland’s WOW Air the Future of Airlines?

“I like to challenge my team,” begins Skúli Mogensen, speaking from a glacier-speared landscape in rural Iceland. “I ask them, are we a technology business or are we an airline?’” It might seem like an unorthodox logic for the head of an airline, but not many such CEO’s are philosophy graduates either. The unique approach seems to be working. Just five years on the runway, Mogensen’s low-cost carrier WOW air has piloted a new era of transatlantic fare war and created a seismic tourism shift in his home Nordic nation.

The 46-year-old Mogensen recounts his resumé with an air of incredulity, “I’d worked in the IT sector for twenty years, was semi-retired and pretty much thought I’d end up on some investment board,” he says. “But then more recently, I was traveling the world a lot, competing in triathlons and adventure sports, and I wanted to find a career that would bring me a similar thrill and challenge.” After brain-storming business opportunities in his native Iceland (noting its peripheral standing on the atlas), the genesis for Mogensen’s new adrenalin rush evolved. “Why not the airline industry?” he thought.

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With an industry encountering a decade of PR turbulence, Mogensen’s move was questioned by his peers. “People looked at me like I was crazy,” he says.” They told me not to touch it with a stick — but that just made me want to do it even more.” He felt the industry owed its damaged reputation to legacy airlines, with too many subsidies, obsolete extras, and all upgrades being shouldered by the consumer. Mogensen’s goal was fresh: appeal to the long-haul “smart traveler” who favors protein bars over three course meal or using personal tech devices over watching in-flight movies. The fares did the talking: U.S. promo flights to Iceland from $99 one way — fifty bucks extra for a connection to London or beyond.

Mogensen is clearly pitching himself as an industry disrupter and appealing to the millennial masses seems a particular keystone to Wow’s game plan. This is why they Snapchat, why they sponsor CrossFit tournaments, why they share cockpit footage of the Northern Lights, and why their social feeds are something of a daily viral sensation.

Social media is “one of the elements that has changed the industry,” Mogensen says. “It enables a small airline like us, sitting in the middle of Iceland with no regional offices, middlemen or agents, to still be able to reach the global audience through smart online marketing. It’s translating to butts in seats. The airline itself has grown from from 100,000 to 1.6 million passengers in five years while Iceland’s tourism numbers have surged by an off-the-richter 300 percent. Suddenly, the Nordic outpost has gone from a bucket-list dreamland to a real-life trending getaway.

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Mogensen doesn’t like to shoulder all the credit for his homeland’s tourism success. “I think we’ve had a series of recent factors, all spotlighting Iceland and its fantastic nature,” he says. “From the movie industry, to Iceland’s success at the Euro Soccer Championships, to the explosion of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, it’s all helped the cause.” There’s no denying this Game of Thrones effect that Mogensen portrays. But without WOW air and their pioneering freebie stopovers, the truth is not many tourists would be touching down in Reykjavik without them.

Looking to the future, Mogensen, who was last year voted Iceland’s businessman of the year, greets the raillery of transatlantic fare war with head-on gusto. “Well there’s real competition now and that’s only going to result in better services and cheaper fares for consumers,” he says. “I actually think prices will continue to go lower”. He’s got his armory waiting in the hangar, too — Wow’s fleet is set to double in the next two years with new routes mushrooming across the U.S. “We’re really just getting started,” says Mogensen. That early retirement in Iceland is looking all the more distant.

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