WOW Air CEO Skuli Mogensen on his airline’s growing pains

Skuli Mogensen launched WOW Air six years ago with two planes. He drew passengers aboard with rock-bottom fares, and charged fees for nearly everything else.

Do you like to select your seat ahead of time? That’s $7. One with a bit more legroom adds $40 to $50. A carry-on bag costs $45. A bottle of water on board? That will be $3.29. There is no in-flight Wi-Fi or seat-back entertainment, to keep costs and fares low.

The Reykjavik-based airline has expanded to serve three-dozen cities on a fleet this year of 20, mostly leased, Airbus jets, attracting passengers in cities like Boston, St. Louis, New York and Cleveland, with sub-$100 fares for flights to Iceland and under $200 to continental Europe.

However, amid all the rapid growth, troubles have sprung up. Travelers have complained that WOW offers poor customer service, including extensive delays, difficulty getting a refund, and a lack of communication from the airline. These are problems Mogensen said he wants to address, just as he plans to test the ultra-low-cost model on longer flights. WOW is planning to launch a 10-and-a-half-hour flight between its Reykjavik base and New Delhi in December. The bad feedback is yet another problem for the carrier to contend with on top of rising fuel and labor costs, and a host of competitors who have recently launched service to its home in trendy Iceland.

“We have to do better,” Mogensen said from his seventh-floor office in Reykjavik, overlooking Faxafloi Bay. Mogensen is a former technology entrepreneur and is also WOW’s owner. “It’s obviously in our interest to fix it.” Such hiccups cost the airline in lost passengers and the money they have to pay to compensate them, he said.

WOW ranked last of 72 airlines worldwide in a recent study by AirHelp, a company that helps passengers get compensated by airlines when they mess up — lose their bags or cause them to miss connections. The study took into account claims processing, on-time arrivals and customer service. Yet while the airline received more “terrible” reviews on TripAdvisor than “excellent” ones, taking into account “poor” and “very good” reviews, the feedback was more positive than negative. TripAdvisor’s scores take into account in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi. (Mogensen is not ruling out offering Wi-Fi but he said he wants to make sure it works.) The negative feedback is familiar to any airline executive, however, especially in the era when incidents go viral on social media immediately.

A recent WOW flight to Iceland left about two hours late from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport because of the late arrival of the aircraft. Such a delay is common on any carrier, especially one that deals with the erratic weather of the U.S. East Coast and Iceland. Having a relatively small fleet can worsen this problem. Larger airlines have better access to backup aircraft and crew to step in when things go wrong. Mogensen said as the airline grows it could have more spare aircraft to avoid delays’ “domino effect.”

Mogensen said he takes such criticism to heart and is trying to improve the situation. He has increased staffing at its New Delhi customer service center and has held meetings with his staff about the issues. Another solution is to collect better information from passengers. Mogensen said some travelers don’t give their actual email address so it becomes difficult to communicate with them and offer options when a flight is delayed or canceled.

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