WOW! Or Woooowww, both pronunciations could refer to the same carrier we’re here to talk about today, WOW Air. Since 2012, this airline has been making waves in the trans-Atlantic travel market. And they do some pretty crazy things, like offering $99 fares between the US and Iceland. Wow Air, along with their low-cost competitor Norwegian, have really shaken up the low-end of the market. To my way of thinking, they’re presence is welcome, as they bring some much-needed competition to the ever-consolidating US legacy airlines and flag-carriers of Europe.
Now, It recently occurred to me that still, not much is known stateside about WOW Air’s offerings or, what one might expect when flying. So, in this post, I’m going to briefly touch on their history and operations. Run over some details regarding their hub in Reykjavik. Talk WOW destinations. Discuss their fleet and on-board amenities. Finally, towards the end, I get to some pretty surprising conclusions when we run some numbers, and see if WOW Air really is the cheaper way to fly.
History and Operations
Before we talk about where you can go on WOW Air, lets talk about where they’ve been. The airline is a newborn by carrier standards, having been founded in 2011 and commencing operations in 2012. In fact, they’re still young enough to celebrate birthdays. Take a Look:
WOW was founded by this guy, Skúli Mogensen, Sorry if I pronounced the name. My Icelandic isn’t the greatest, I’m considering Duolilngo. He got started by founding, then selling, a messaging company named OZ Communications to Nokia back in 2008. Furthermore, he founded the precursor to Vodafone Iceland, an animation studio, began reviving the Icelandic banking system in 2010 and created the WOW cyclothon, a 955-mile cycling race around the Island. He’s basically a slightly smaller scale, GQ version of Elon Musk. He often cites Iceland’s ideal location as the perfect place from which to operate a low-cost, transatlantic airline.
All WOW Air flights originate or terminate at Keflavík International Airport, the countries primary international gateway. Many passengers cite cleanliness and passport control efficiency as the facilities standout traits, though it appears that past these metrics, the airport often falls short of travelers expectations.
Likely due to the recent surge in popularity of the country as a vacation destination, KEF has experienced an explosion in the number of passengers annually served. From 2007 till 2017, passenger numbers increased 260%. So, it’s somewhat unsurprising the facility is experiencing growing pains.
This is most obviously represented in its Skytraxx customer rating, a relatively sad 4 out of ten. Most commonly, passengers complain of limited seating, outsized crowds and overtasked service personal. One passenger even going so far to title their review “Absolute pandemonium at the gates”. Though, in all fairness, this was written by an American and we do have a really bad habit of getting bent out of shape over nothing. Now, to add some context, legendarily horrible airports La Guardia and Paris’ Charles De Gaul earn 3 stars each. That should let anyone transiting know what type of experience to expect.
Sadly, Priority Pass members will find no refuge, as the airport’s only lounge, the Icelandair Saga, does not offer access. Of course, one will not experience Keflavik without departing from somewhere.
WOW Air Destinations and Route Map
North American’s, at least those that consider the Atlantic the closet ocean, will appreciate WOW’s route map. Not surprisingly, the major gateways of Toronto, New York, DC and Chicago are all served. Interestingly, we see a number of smaller markets on the list, Cleveland for example. I’m both surprised and impressed. Out West, only LA and San Francisco are on the map. Just a guess here, but I assume this is due to Wow’s limited number of A330’s. I simply couldn’t imagine another other motivation for Wow to saturate the Midwest, and it’s markets than can be reached with a narrowbody fleet, while leaving major cities like Seattle, Denver, Vancouver or Vegas off the list.
As previously mentioned, everything from here runs through Reykjavik. Transiting the hub, one is presented with a plethora of options across Europe. Most major metropolitan areas are available to the WOW Air customer, as well as some less-traveled ones. It’s interesting to think that the Canary Islands are only a single stop from St. Louis with both Tenerife and Gran Canaria being represented. Getting further out, we see Tel Aviv and, starting December 2018, New Delhi. The latter will be served by WOW’s brand new A330 NEO.
I’ve got to say, for those living east of the Mississippi and looking for a ride to Europe on a low-cost-carrier, WOW air does seem to make it easy.
WOW Air Entertainment
Once one has settled on where Wow Air will take them, they might be curious about the flight itself. Unfortunately, Passengers flying WOW will have limited airline-provided entertainment options. Therefore, it’s pretty important that one bring their own. A decade ago, this might have been a big deal, but I don’t consider it one anymore. In fact, I almost think not having anything on tap keeps expectations realistic. I don’t know how many times I’ve been lazy and not bothered loading up my tablet, instead planning on utilizing the carrier’s offerings. Inevitably, I end up disappointed with the selection or quality.
For those not possessing 21st century media consumption tools, the airline does offer a limited number of iPads(Amazon) for rent. Prices are not listed, but travelers have reported $8 is the going rate. I would consider this an “oh shit, I forgot my Kindle Fire(Amazon)” type of option, since availability isn’t guaranteed.
Those with charge-anxiety will find WOW’s aircraft somewhat equivalent to a Xanax, as each seat has access to a universal power outlet. It’s interesting to see low-cost-carriers providing these, as they’re not always available, even on full-service ones.
WOW Air Fleet
Taking a look a Wow Air’s fleet and I’m seeing a lot to like. They appear to be following Southwest’s very successful footprints and limiting the number of aircraft types in their fleet. In their case to just two, the Airbus A320, plus family and the A330. Furthermore, their fleet is just about the youngest in the world, at an average age of only 2.9 years. The oldest plane flying was built in 2010. To add some context here, let’s take a look at Delta, which, by comparison operates a fleet of dinosaurs. The average age of their aircraft is 16.6 years.
Completely unique to WOW Air, is the fact they detail the age and history of every unique tail-number they fly. Take this beauty for example. Her name is TF-GAY. Citing Wow Air directly:
“TF-GAY was delivered to WOW air in June 2016 and visits San Francisco as often as it can, in between visits to Amsterdam and other cool and happening places around Europe. TF-GAY is a 2010 Airbus A330-300, widebody aircraft, a truly efficient machine with seats for 345 guests and a flight range of over 6,000 nautical miles.”
Does offering this level of detail regarding their operations benefit passengers in any practical way? Well, not really. Is it lip-service? Maybe, But I still think it’s pretty cool, and does demonstrates the airline is genuinely trying to connect with its customers. Certainly, a departure from the cattle herd treatment most fliers of US domestics are used to.
WOW Air Award Program
After the flight, one might wonder how many miles they’ve earned. Sadly, there is almost nothing to talk about on this front. WOW Air does not have an award program. Furthermore, those hoping to use their Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards won’t find it easy. Neither one’s travel portal currently lists WOW flights as bookable. I don’t really know what’s going on here. At first, I assumed it was because Wow didn’t allow third-party booking, like Southwest. However, taking a look at Expedia and Priceline, and we see WOW Air flights available. Why Chase and Amex are holding out appears to be a mystery that at the moment I’m going to have to leave unsolved.
Those holding Ultimate Rewards might have another, though untested, option. And that is to call Chase to book. One is able to use this method to obtain Southwest and Allegiant flights, so I’m just guessing it would work for WOW ones.
Going forward, I was curious what the carriers future plans were, so I reached out to them via the Twitter. Sadly, it doesn’t appear they have any plans to implement an award program at the moment. Honestly though, this likely isn’t a big deal. Being a non-US carrier, I wouldn’t bother accumulating their miles anyway. Furthermore, being a low-cost-carrier, transferred miles, even if they existed, probably wouldn’t yield any real high-value award redemptions.
WOW Air Service Tiers
Now, when we talk about fares, those familiar with Wow instantly think cheap. But as we’ll get to in a minute, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good value. WOW uses the a-la-carte approach, similar to Spirit. With that in mind, one needs to consider the airfare as just a single component of the flight cost. Legacy carriers already set the bar pretty low, so it’s a littler jarring to consider that one needs to purchase extras just to meet this low level of service.
WOW Air prices tickets at four service tiers, Basic, Plus, Comfy and Premium. As we’ll see in a second, it appears that Plus is the sweet spot. But let’s start with the lowest of the low, Wow Basic, and what one gets for this price: A place to sit somewhere on the plane and a personal item, that’s it. No carry-on baggage, no checked-luggage, no food, and no assigned seat. I think it’s very important to keep in mind exactly what you’re purchasing, otherwise, we end up getting Spirit style customers. In other words, the ones who purchase ultra-discount tickets, only to later complain they received discount service and amenities.
Next up, we’ve got Wow plus, is broadly similar to economy on a legacy carrier. We’ve now have some carry-on bag allowance, can check some luggage, and can reserve a seat. Conspicuously missing, is any in-flight food or beverage.
One more step up, and we’ve got Wow Comfy, in the same universe as domestic carrier economy plus seating. Same amenities as before, but now adding XXL legroom. Which, BTW, sounds a bit, uhm, adult in nature. In layman’s terms, this means going from a seat with a 30-inch pitch, to one with 35. Worth noting here, is that a 30-inch seat is getting into torture territory. I don’t think the international criminal court will be intervening, but keep in mind, United currently uses a 31-inch pitch, so picture that, less one, across an ocean. Not a pretty picture.
Finally, we’ve got WOW Premium. Not to be confused with any type of legacy international business-class, it’s more akin to domestic first, at least on a seat-size basis. You’ll get a Wow “Big Seat”, but oddly, the carrier doesn’t let passengers know exactly how big this is. Even Seat Guru seems to have it wrong. They list a 17-inch-wide chair. However, considering Big Seat rows are 7 abreast, as opposed to 8 in back, I knew this couldn’t be correct. So, I reached out to Wow to get some clarification. They responded quickly, that the correct width is 19.2” with 37” of pitch. To give one an idea of how big that is, Delta uses a 21” wide seat with 36 inches of pitch in first class, on their domestic A320’s. So, when one is booking WOW Premium, they’re getting a little more leg room, but a little less shoulder-room than what is found up-front on legacy narrow-body aircraft.
Is WOW Air Cheap?
So, here is probably a good place to get into some fare comparisons. I’m going to look at the average savings one would get if flying bare bones, that is, purchasing the WOW Basic fare with no add-ons. Next, I’m going to price the tickets so it’s roughly similar to a full-fare airline. In other words, I’ll be adding checked and carry-on baggage, and adding a flat $10 per segment to compensate for the price of an in-flight meal. I’ll be comparing the WOW Total, to the lowest prices available on Google Flights for a seat on a traditional airline, same origin/destination and same day.
Due to some time constraints, and the fact that that I’m really just trying to formulate some general ideas, my sample size isn’t all that large. Only 5 hypothetical trips. San Francisco(SFO) to Amsterdam(AMS), Reykjavik(KEF) to Milan(MXP), Detroit(DTW) to Reykjavic(KEF), Chicago(ORD) to Paris(CDG) and Boston(BOS) to Reykjavic(KEF). I’ll just present averages here. For anyone curious, Raw data is available on this Google Sheet.
|WOW Air vs Legacy Full-Service Airline|
|Wow Basic||Basic w/bags||Wow Plus||Legacy Cost||Delta|
Starting with the baseline number, the average cost of a full-service, roundtrip, legacy carrier ticket was $584.80. Compared to this average fare, Wow seems like a bargain, at only $439.98. But, I think the WOW Basic fares are a bit unrealistic. Almost nobody fly’s to Europe with zero baggage and consumes no food or beverages. That’s why I tried to normalize things a little by adding in what I would consider necessary extras. With these included, the average WOW Basic fare jumps to $676.14. Now we’re looking at a 15% PREMIUM to fly WOW. Not exactly a bargain anymore. But it gets even more interesting. The average fare for WOW Plus was $654.06. Furthermore, in every single sample, it was slightly cheaper to purchase WOW Plus than to purchase WOW Basic and then add bags a-la-carte.
Confused yet? I’m beginning to think this is by design. It’s almost like WOW Air is using the car dealership model. Get everyone through the door with absurd prices, then have em’ figure out how much they’ve actually spent when it’s too late. But unlike the car buying experience, Wow isn’t hiding, or making any of these upgrades or fees hard to find. Quite the opposite. They appear to be very upfront with their pricing. It’s just that there’s so many options, and everything is so piece-meal, that I wouldn’t find it hard to believe some customers are left scratching their heads.
Now let’s further complicate thing a little more and talk Big Seats. WOW Air’s pseudo-premium cabin. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s on the same planet as a domestic first-class seat. The average cost to upgrade, was $574.97 round-trip. Bringing the total average cost, including the base fare and baggage charges to $1,274.44. Just like how it was always cheaper to purchase Wow Plus over the base fare and baggage separately, you’ll almost always get more value out of simply purchasing WOW premium, which includes the big seat, extra luggage, an in-flight meal, cancellation protection plus priority boarding and security.
I think at this point, it’s safe to come up with a couple of general rules when considering whether or not Wow Air is for you
- Compared to Legacy carriers, WOW is cheaper when flying bare bones, without any baggage. Under this scenario, they maintained a 27% price advantage
- In a real-world scenario, one in which a European traveler would have some cloths with them, Wow is actually more expensive, by 12%
- It’s almost always cheaper to purchase WOW Plus when traveling with bags
This whole comparison has left me with one question that I consider tough to answer. That is, what would trans-Atlantic fares be right now, if carriers like WOW or Norwegian didn’t exist? My guess is that they would be markedly higher. Again, just a guess.
So, I’ll end it with this, Wow appears to be shaking things up, and I think that’s great. They offer a safe, but not necessarily cheap, flight to Europe. Furthermore, I really appreciate the age of their aircraft, being just about the newest fleet in the sky. Finally, the fact they’re putting competitive pressure on carriers that have locked out the market for decades is just great.