Tuesday 11 December 2018

Wow Air boss wants fares so cheap that 'everybody can afford to see the world'

Wow Air chief executive Skuli Mogensen with one of its planes
Wow Air chief executive Skuli Mogensen with one of its planes
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Skuli Mogensen has done in his left leg. The Wow Air chief executive tore ligaments to bits during a 10-day Christmas skiing trip to the French Alpine ski resort of Courchevel. Months of recovery - including physiotherapy and an operation - lay ahead.

"I go there a lot. There was no snow. I was doing a lot of touring and hiking looking for some, but this happened on the last day when I was just doing the normal touristy slopes," he says, grinning as he sits in Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel.

"I travel so much and I guess I'm a bit of a quirky manager, so I came back and told my team that I had good news and bad news," he says. "The bad news is that you're stuck with me for the next three months. I've cancelled all my trips. The good news: you're stuck with me."

Mogensen has ploughed more than $20m (€19m) of his own money into Wow Air, which he launched in 2012.

He's trying to transform the transatlantic air model, by offering low fares for passengers willing to travel to North America via a Reykjavik hub.

He has grown the number of passengers on Wow Air from 500,000 in 2014 to an expected three million this year. Next year, the figure will hit 4.5 million, Mogensen reckons.

The carrier will have a fleet of 17 aircraft in 2017 - a mix of Airbus A320s, A321s, and long-haul A330s.

Its routes include one from Dublin to Reykjavik, connecting passengers to destinations in North America, such as New York, Boston and Toronto via Iceland. In May, it will start services from Cork.

Mogensen insists that the model is working, even if others in the industry aren't sold in its potential longevity.

And unlike Ryanair chairman David Bonderman, who has dismissed the notion of long-haul, low-cost models because he says demand can't be stimulated sufficiently for such services to work, Mogensen thinks it can.

"Last year, we grew capacity by 127pc and still managed a close to 80pc load factor (the percentage of available seats it filled)," he says.

"I see opportunities everywhere when it comes to the low-cost, long-haul model. I think we're just getting started," the airline chief insists.

"It's probably just 2pc of global traffic today. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be 20pc or 30pc in the next 10 years, which means there are going to be tremendous growth opportunities."

Ryanair's Bonderman previously mused that while airlines can stimulate travel on short-haul services by cutting fares, the same doesn't apply to long-haul. No matter how cheap it may be relative to other available fares, he said, people don't generally head off on a whim to New York or Boston for a weekend. They're more likely to head for London, Rome, Paris or Edinburgh if the price is right though.

"We do stimulate the market tremendously," says Mogensen, who has a background in telecoms. "We demonstrated that in every market that we've entered. My goal is to lower prices to a point where everybody can afford to see the world. The key to all of it is technology - how to find and reach out to customers."

Mogensen says he has no concerns about competing with Norwegian Air International, which hopes to start direct, low-cost flights to the United States from Cork this summer.

And he's still keen - for now, at least - to hold onto control of Wow. No outside equity has been invested in the business.

"We have quite a few people knocking on our door now that we have demonstrated that the model is working and making healthy profits for two years in a row," he says.

"It's a capital-intensive business. So, yes, eventually, I would anticipate that we'll bring in partners, but there's nothing immediate."

Irish Independent

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