Colorful rooftops line Reykjavík by Bjørn Giesenbauer via Wikimedia Commons
Colorful rooftops line Reykjavík by Bjørn Giesenbauer via Wikimedia Commons

Iceland — the New Dubai?

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

You probably couldn’t find any two areas less similar than desert-hot Dubai and glacier-covered Iceland — at least geographically. But functionally, for an airline, they’re quite similar: midpoints between two large air travel markets where airlines can operate hub-and-spoke bases. That’s what Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar are doing in the Gulf; Icelandair and its various predecessors have been quietly doing the same at Keflavik, and now aggressive newcomer Wow Air plans to take a shot at it, too.

Why does a hub in Iceland make sense? Although more than two dozen U.S. cities have nonstop service to Europe, only New York/Newark, O’Hare, and Washington have nonstops to some of Europe’s lesser cities. Nonstops from other U.S. points fly only to the giant lines’ main hub cities: Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, and Paris. Want to fly, for example, from San Francisco to Geneva? You find no nonstops, so you have to change planes and connect at a hub somewhere: O’Hare, JFK, Washington, or one of the big European hubs. But with the possible exception of Amsterdam, connecting at one of those other hub airports can be a real hassle. I can attest to that personally: I recently missed a connecting flight at Paris/DeGaulle due to the extra processing and extraordinary schlepping through that huge terminal.

Hubbing at much smaller Keflavik airport outside Reykjavik can be a lot easier. Also, although it’s a bit north of the great circle tracks from most U.S. cities to most European destinations, routes through Keflavik are shorter than routes through New York. The main problem is that, at least according to Wow, Keflavik may be too small to accommodate much traffic growth. But when it comes to hubs, small is good.

The Wow Air story begins with another startup low-fare line, Iceland Express, which initiated flights from Keflavik to the U.S. and Canada in 2010. But Iceland Express ran into problems in 2011 and 2012, and halted transatlantic flights. Meanwhile, Wow Air, founded as an ultra-low-cost line, started out flying from Iceland to Paris in 2011, and in 2012 it took over Iceland Express routes, flying from Keflavik to Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Washington with narrow-body A321s. On the other side, Wow flies from Keflavik to about two dozen major and secondary European cities. This summer, Wow will expand to the Los Angeles and San Francisco with three A330s carrying 340 passengers in an all-economy configuration, including a few extra-legroom seats.

Wow generates headlines by featuring one-way fares of $99 to Iceland and $199 to continental Europe. But don’t be fooled: Wow charges big time for baggage and other services — $48 for a carry-on bag and $67 for a checked bag — and it will sell only limited numbers of seats at those low fares.

Meanwhile, Icelandair has gradually expanded to serve 11 cities in the U.S. and five in Canada, with onward connections to 26 cities on the Continent. Icelandair uses 757s, with three classes: conventional economy with a slightly-above-average 32-inch pitch; economy comfort with 33-inch pitch and the middle seat blocked, and “Saga,” which Icelandair promotes as a business class but is actually more like other lines’ premium economy. Icelandair doesn’t pitch rock-bottom fares; instead, it usually undercuts the competition by a little bit and provides extra amenities such as two checked bags and inflight entertainment.

Both lines promote stopovers in Iceland on your way to/from Europe. If you have the time, it’s a great idea: Iceland is a unique destination with some spectacular sights.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend either Wow or Icelandair for trips where nonstop flights are available unless fares are substantially lower — after factoring in the extras on Wow. But if your home airport doesn’t have nonstop service to a city you want to visit, you are likely to find that hubbing in Keflavik is a lot easier than hubbing at DeGaulle, Frankfurt, Heathrow, JFK, or Newark.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website.)

Tribune Content Agency — January 19, 2016


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