PLAY Airlines CEO Birgir Jónsson on Iceland, and Travel and Play
Birgir Jónsson, CEO of the New PLAY Airlines talks about their venture to one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, Iceland
By Teh Chin Liang
Birgir Jónsson is CEO of Play Airlines. He 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.
He was 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. Birgir holds an MBA from the University of Westminster in London and a BA (Hons) from the University of the Arts London.
Interview with PLAY Airlines CEO
Q. I love the airline’s slogan, “Pay less, play more, and fly to Iceland!”. PLAY airlines were initially named WAB air (“We Are Back”) and later rebranded as PLAY. Tell us how did the name PLAY and the red livery idea come about, and what kind of image Play wanted to project when it was first established in 2019?
The name WAB air (We Are Back) was a working title for the company in its early stages. When established in 2019, PLAY’s mission was to deliver a simple and streamlined approach to service.
Rather than spending their budget on travel extras, PLAY enables passengers to instead spend their budget on meaningful experiences such as dining and excursions that make their trip a memorable one, which is where the slogan “pay less, play more” originated.
The PLAY Airlines name embodies everything that the airline is about, how it speaks to its customers and its level of service.
Q. You said in one interview that you believe slow and steady is what wins the race. With the rise of so many budget airlines, such as Wizz Air, EasyJet, and Norwegian who also operate routes to and from Keflavik, what edge does PLAY have over others to stay on top of the game and achieve regional growth?
With ownership from almost 5,000 shareholders, PLAY is held to strict regulations and processes, with major decision-making run through our board of directors. PLAY is focused on a data-driven approach and adhering to its hub-and-spoke business model, owning no wide-body aircraft which enables the airline to maintain low prices.
Daily Flights from BWI, BOS, SWF to Europe
In addition to affordable fares, PLAY Airlines stands out against competitors with 90% on-time reliability. PLAY customers can fly daily from convenient U.S. locations including Baltimore/Washington D.C. (BWI), Boston (BOS), and New York (SWF) to 22 popular European destinations without breaking the bank.
Q. PLAY recently canceled the planned Orlando route and postponed the delivery of Airbus A321LR due to the skyrocketing fuel costs. Does it mean that PLAY will go all in to focus only on fuel-efficient routes in the months to come? Is PLAY eyeing for more route expansion around the East Coast of the US and Canada, or perhaps the Mediterranean and North Africa? What are the possible new routes on the radar?
As a result of rising fuel prices, PLAY’s Orlando service will not commence this fall as planned. PLAY is excited to continue operations in the U.S. with daily flights from Baltimore/Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. Despite the rising costs, PLAY has a positive outlook on international travel, and expects passengers to continue to book trips throughout the year. As PLAY continues to expand operations, it’s taking a strategic approach to growth to ensure low prices along the way.
Q. You have said in many interviews that it is inevitable for people to compare PLAY with Wow. PLAY was founded by a group of former Wow executives, including yourself. If there is one thing that you have learned from your tenure at WOW, what is that and how will you apply that lesson in PLAY?
It is understandable why people compare PLAY to WOW. But there are key differences that set them apart. While WOW was a fast-growing startup, it suffered when it veered from its business plan to further broaden its global reach by introducing new destinations routes such as India, Israel, and the United States West Coast.
My time with WOW provided me with clarity that it’s important to uphold a strict business model, which is why PLAY focuses on data-driven expansion decisions, reports to a board, and will not operate long-haul flights.
Q. How would you describe Iceland in your own words, and if you could tailor your own vacation in Iceland, what would be your ideal one-week itinerary for Iceland?
Iceland is an undeniably unique place made special by its vast wilderness. Its variety of landscapes, natural forces, and seemingly endless dramatic scenery. Iceland is full of wonderful contradictions, you can get the wilderness experience and beautiful scenery of the country while also touring the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík, all in one day.
The Golden Circle of Iceland
When it comes to a one-week itinerary, PLAY recommends the Golden Circle of Iceland which will take you all over the beautiful country. During this trip, you can experience glaciers, lagoons, and spectacular scenery. An insider’s recommendation is to go to the islands of Vestmannaeyjar, where you can see puffins and the remains of a volcanic eruption that went over part of the village decades ago.
Reykjavík is home to a thriving culinary scene. PLAY highly recommends restaurants like Héðinn Kitchen and Monkeys. Visitors should also be sure to experience Reykjavík’s charming nightlife including Röntgen, Auto Club, Kaffibarinn, and The Irishman and Prikið.
Q. It’s been almost a year since PLAY launched its inaugural flight from Keflavík to London Stansted. Looking back on the past year, what is one success story that stands out for you the most?
PLAY Airline’s Biggest Accomplishment
PLAY’s biggest accomplishment in the past year is continued growth and expansion into the United States despite a turbulent travel climate. PLAY has rapidly grown since launching in 2021, and the airline has seen growth in both bookings and load factor. When PLAY launched operations with its first flights in June 2021, the airline operated seven routes to five countries including Paris, London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Alicante, Tenerife, and Barcelona.
Today, PLAY Airlines serves 22 destinations. In 2021, PLAY flew more than 100,000 passengers, and already in 2022 alone, has flown nearly 150,000 passengers. PLAY’s measured growth has thus far resulted in a 54% increase in passengers between May and June 2022, and PLAY expects to continue increasing its passenger loads with newly launched routes this summer.
Q. I understand PLAY is not pursuing a rapid growth strategy like what Wow did, but how do you foresee Play will evolve organically in the next few years in terms of business diversification, route expansion and customer experience?
PLAY is focused on making data-driven growth decisions and adhering to its hub-and-spoke business model. The airline offers low prices attractive to leisure travelers, and the airline will continue to evolve by adding new destinations and routes and growing its team at a measured rate. PLAY plans to continue to grow its business by increasing fleet size to 10 planes in 2023 and a dozen in 2024, working our way up to 15 aircraft by 2025.
PLAY will take route expansions strategically to ensure it is growing at a rate to ensure longevity and the ability to continue offering low-cost flights. PLAY will not be operating long-haul services to Asian cities as that does not fit within its current business model.
Q8. In your opinion, why traveling between the US and Europe via Reykjavík is a better option than a non-stop transatlantic flight, and how would you advocate this option to the passengers from these two continents?
PLAY’s hub-and-spoke business model leverages Iceland’s position between the U.S. and Europe, gathering travelers from different European and U.S. destinations for a stop-over in Iceland. With this approach, PLAY can gather travelers from many destinations rather than filling flights from one city to another.
This ensures PLAY’s load factor and low prices for passengers, enabling them to pay less for their flights and spend more money on the things that make a trip memorable. The stopover is short and convenient, or passengers can even choose to book long layovers in Reykjavík before continuing to their destination. That way, they can also explore Iceland for the same affordable ticket price.
Teh Chin Liang is a long-time travel journal contributor to Dave’s Travel Corner and Global Travel Insider. Besides travel journals, he loves writing prose and poetry. When he is not writing, he enjoys reading and traveling to get inspiration for his writing. He lives in Penang, Malaysia, a scenic island city that is also a UNESCO heritage site.