'It's cowboys meets Vikings': WOW air revived by American heiress – but will it work this time around?

Oliver Smith

WOW air, the Icelandic low-cost carrier that ceased trading in March – leaving thousands of passengers stranded overseas, has been revived by a US investor. 

Michele Ballarin, chief executive of USAerospace Associates, made the announcement at a press conference last week. She said the new WOW will be based at Dulles International Airport, near Washington, D.C., but that its first route – coming in October – will be from the US capital to Keflavik, Iceland’s only international airport. 

It will resume operation with just two planes but aims to have four by next summer and up to a dozen in the long term. The WOW branding and purple livery will be retained, but Ballarin – a West Virginian heiress – hinted at some curious innovations.

She said she wanted to “make flying fun again” but also spoke about the importance of in-flight nutrition. “We have a three-star Michelin chef who is working very closely with us,” she added. There are also plans to offer all passengers access to airport lounges. 

Despite proposing such frills, Ballarin said she wants to keep prices low. Exact fares have not been revealed, tickets are not on sale, and the precise date of the relaunch is not known. The old website (wowair.com) still shows a travel alert informing passengers of the airline’s demise. 

Michele Ballarin, chief executive of USAerospace Associates Credit: GETTY

Ownership will be split between USAerospace Associates and investors in Iceland. “It’s cowboys meeting Vikings,” said Ballarin. 

The original WOW began life in 2012, and before long was selling headline-grabbing fares between the UK and North America – think London to New York from £99, one-way.

It quickly grew, launching new routes every few months and positioning itself at the centre of the low-cost, long-haul revolution taking place between Europe and the Americas. At its peak, WOW was looking to rival Norwegian. But despite hefty additional charges for baggage and other add-ons, it wasn’t making money.

The route cuts started in 2018. The carrier dropped Pittsburgh, St Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and then put Los Angeles on hold. Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco fell by the wayside next, followed by New York JFK. The airline’s route to Delhi, the first budget flight from Britain to India, was dropped almost as soon as it started. Just before the end was announced, WOW was still selling tickets to six North American destinations – Boston, Detroit, Montreal, New York, Toronto and Washington DC – down from 17 at its peak. 

The collapse came in March, leaving thousands stuck abroad or without flights for upcoming trips, and the airline faced criticism from consumer groups for continuing to sell flights up to an hour before it ceased trading. Six months previously, Primera, another carrier that tried to make a fist of low-cost long-haul travel, also failed, while Norwegian, which flies from Europe to dozens of North American cities, has also struggled to turn a profit. “It simply costs more than £99 to fly between continents,” was the pithy verdict of Kristjan Sigurjonsson, editor of Icelandic news site Turisti after WOW’s bankruptcy. 

Whether WOW 2.0 will work remains to be seen. Talk of Michelin-starred chefs and lounge access suggest it will be a very different beast to its predecessor, but – as recent years have shown – making a success of an airline in an already crowded market is no easy task.