Carlye Lehnen has wanted to travel to Iceland since 2008, when the country underwent a banking crisis that made traveling there cheap. But when she looked for flights, they were too infrequent and expensive.
So when the 45-year-old heard that Icelandic airline Wow Air would start offering flights out of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, she leapt at the chance to fulfill a 10-year travel dream.
“As soon as it was announced, I had already booked my flight,” said Lehnen. She snagged the airline’s vaunted $99 fare.
Thursday night, she flew the airline’s inaugural flight out of St. Louis to Reykjavik, Iceland. Wow’s May 17 debut also marks the first time since 2003 that Lambert will offer regular and direct transatlantic flights. Wow Air representatives have not responded to a request for comment.
The budget airline offers direct flights to Reykjavik and connecting flights to European destinations such as Berlin, Amsterdam, and Lyon, France. It recently announced $199 flights to New Delhi, India.
Wow is part of a growing industry of budget transatlantic airlines, according to airline-business reporter Brian Sumers, who writes for the travel information company Skift.
Sumers said that airlines like Wow and Norwegian Air seek out cities willing to subsidize their flights. St. Louis–area governmental agencies offered $800,000 in incentives and a waiver of landing fees for 18 months, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The companies lose cost advantage on fuel costs for long flights, said Sumers. However, the company’s small, one-aisle airplanes also have lower operational costs, which make it more feasible for the company to fly into a smaller market like St. Louis.
Wow also depends heavily on additive fees.
Basic tickets, like the one Lehnen purchased, get travelers a seat on the plane, and they can carry on one personal item. Additional carry-on baggage, checked baggage, a guaranteed seat placement and cancellations all cost extra. Treats that are free on other airlines — such as water and peanuts — cost money on a Wow flight.
The airline offers higher-priced tickets that include more bags, comfier seats and in-flight meals with the fare. And any flier can purchase snacks, more luggage or extra leg room.
“They say that’s about customer choice, but people do have to be very careful about what they’re getting,” said Sumers.
But some passengers don’t care about extra amenities. Melissa Meinzer embraced the limitations of flying on a budget airline for her trip to Paris in two weeks.
“The only catch is, I’m bringing hardly any luggage,” said Meinzer. “The only free piece of luggage that you get is a personal item, so I’m going to the world’s most fashionable city with, like, two outfits.”
Meinzer plans to buy more clothes in Paris, then wear multiple layers back home on the plane.
But Meinzer said the trade-off is well worth it. She’s bragged since she bought her tickets in the fall that the round-trip flight cost only $368.
“Not a peanut I shall buy!” she said. “I’ll be very cranky when I get to France, but that’s just more money to waste on croissants.”
Even though penny-pinching can hurt budget airlines’ profits, the industry depends on customers like Lehnen and Meinzer — who care more about destination than amenities — to stay in business, said Glenn MacDonald, the John M. Olin distinguished professor of economics and strategy at Washington University’s business school.
“It’s kind of like going to McDonald’s: You really know what you’re getting, and it’s not terribly expensive,” he said. That’s a sustainable model, for the most part, because “there’s always going to be somebody who wants to get to Kansas City from St. Louis for as little money as possible.”
But MacDonald and Sumers, the airline-business reporter, agree that the budget-flight business model is less secure when applied to transatlantic flights, which cost more for airlines.
All of Wow’s flights stop in Iceland. And if people grew tired of traveling to Iceland, then one of the company’s gimmicks — flexible layovers at a niche destination — could fail. And that could lead to financial trouble, said MacDonald.
“I don’t know if you have enough people who want to go to Iceland to run it forever,” he said. “It’s a very small and unusual market.”
Ultimately, said Sumers, “nobody knows” whether transatlantic budget airlines will last.
“People should take advantage of this while they can,” said Sumers.
Lehnen, who’s already in Iceland, said she was “wow’d” by the flight experience and plans to take a “hilarious barf bag” as a souvenir on the way back. She noted that even with the cheapest seats, her flight offered USB ports and outlets.
“We’re going to have some new services in St. Louis that I really think is going to give us folks in the Midwest some opportunities that we don’t normally get,” she said. “How many times can you fall asleep in St. Louis and wake up in Europe?”