CEO Interview: PLAY’s Birgir Jónsson

CEO Interview: PLAY’s Birgir Jónsson

DALLAS — During the CAPA Airline Leader Summit 2023 event in Budapest, Hungary, Airways was able to talk with various airlines’ representatives, including PLAY’s (OG) CEO, Birgir Jónsson, whom we had the chance to ask about the Icelandic low-cost airline’s operations.

PLAY was founded in 2019 by ex-WOW Air representatives. OG’s headquarters are located in Reykjavík, Iceland. The carrier started its operations on 24 June 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are flying to various European and North American destinations, including Amsterdam (AMS) and London Stansted (STN).

Birgir Jónsson. Photo: Dominik Csordás/Airways

Birgir Jónsson Interview

DC: How does PLAY differentiate itself from low-cost carriers and full-service airlines, and who do you see as your target customer demographic?

BJ: It is no surprise that the low-cost model used to struggle due to high fixed and variable costs, and flying wide-body aircraft with low yields. PLAY differentiates itself by offering customers to cross the Atlantic, either point-to-point to Iceland or even to stopover in Iceland on their way to either Europe or North America, using narrow-body Airbuses for affordable prices.

Our target customers are all types of passengers. Whether they’re traveling for leisure, luxury, or business. We want, and believe, that we can appeal to everyone with our amazing route map, excellent services, and a new, young, fleet of narrow-body Airbuses.

The most important part for passengers is good customer service. How do you ensure this and what steps do you take to improve the service?

Quality service is fast and efficient. PLAY only offers its customers digital services because it’s easy and quick. With modern digital solutions, consumers emphasize being able to do business rapidly and securely as well as information being accessible, and problems easily solved. Both consumers and companies consider it a disruption of daily life if the wait for service is long.

A digital service is therefore a good tool for companies to be able to adapt fast service. Digital services allow companies to serve many customers in the same minute. We thus save manpower and time by talking to many customers at once and the consumer is happier as a result of shorter waiting times and faster delivery.

How do you decide which new routes to add, and what factors do you consider?

First of all, we look at the demand for the destination. Then we check whether it fits within our route network; taking into consideration aircraft availability, for example.

Play Airlines Airbus A321neo TF-PLA. Photo: Yifei Yu/Airways

What do you see as the future of the airline industry, and how do you plan to position Play Airlines to stay competitive?

We see more collaboration between airlines and airports to connect the world, keeping in mind a sustainable future without affecting customer choices. Competition is essential in this industry to offer more people to travel at affordable prices; without it, ticket prices will rise and affect the demand.

PLAY is advantageous by offering our customers to stopover in Iceland on their way to either Europe or North America. Iceland is a huge draw for nature and adventure enthusiasts.

How do you approach the decision-making process at Play Airlines, and what factors do you consider when making strategic decisions?

We are a data-driven company, and all decisions are made compared to data. We emphasized from the beginning to have quality and live data to make the right decisions fast at any given time to maximize our revenue and keep costs low. All data is aligned, therefore, making it easier for us to analyze it from all angles to make the best decision for each department.

How does Play Airlines commit to sustainability and the environment? Can you tell me more about it? How do you reduce the impacts on the environment?

From day one, we have taken our commitment to running a sustainable airline very seriously. We do not pretend to be perfect in all our sustainability actions, but we will always seek to do our best every step of the way. PLAY’s sustainability strategy is based on a materiality assessment that was conducted in the first year of operation (2021).

This was done to prioritize the most material topics related to ESG (Environmental, Governance, and Social Impact). Moreover, targets were set that correlate to five of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Namely, numbers 12, 13, 5, 8, and 17.

PLAY is a new company growing at a rapid pace and therefore lowering our environmental impact is one of our main challenges. The materiality assessment gave us a good foundation for selecting KPIs and we identified our most material topics in terms of sustainability. There is a consensus within the executive team that the goal of working towards carbon neutrality should be a high priority.

Some of the actions PLAY has already taken include but are not limited to, implementing Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in our operations as quickly as possible. PLAY has complied with Norway’s and France’s national SAF mandates implemented in 2022.

In the current environment, SAF poses challenges regarding accessibility and supply, therefore PLAY has adjusted its goal to aim for at least 2% by 2025 as required by EU law. The aim will be higher if possible. In addition, PLAY, in cooperation with Klimate, has established projects on voluntary offsetting for passengers. In the period between March 29, 2022, and February 28, 2023, PLAY’s collaboration with Klimate resulted in PLAY’s passengers removing 292.52 tons of CO2 from their flights.

PLAY published its first Annual and Sustainability Report in 2021 where you can find our first carbon accounting, PLAY’s second Annual Sustainability Report was published at the beginning of March 2023.

The focus was set on improving our calculations and data collection in terms of coverage and accuracy. On another note, we operate a young and modern fleet of A320neo and A321neo which are two of the most fuel-efficient aircraft in the industry at the present time. This means our aircraft emit the least amount of CO2. Our Report on Sustainability can be accessed from our website here.

Play Airlines Airbus A321neo TF-PLB. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the airline industry in the coming years, and how is Play Airlines preparing to address these challenges?

Inflation and the global economic outlook are a challenge, although it is not stopping people from traveling overseas. We’re seeing changes in customer behavior. People traveling to Iceland or beyond, are booking further ahead in time and are likely to distribute payments.

This trend is very positive for PLAY. It indicates that PLAY has reached more trust and awareness which is one of our biggest goals, and challenges, being a new start-up airline from Iceland with only two years of operation under its belt.

How does Play Airlines work to build relationships with its frequent flyers, and what benefits do you offer to encourage loyalty? Can you tell me further details about the partnerships with other airlines?

PLAY has a great and seamless booking flow where customers can create an account, MyPLAY, for an easier booking experience. Our goal is to always offer great service from the beginning to the end of the customer journey.

There is always the possibility that in the future PLAY will offer a loyalty program in some form. We’re constantly growing our distribution. For example, we’re distributing our inventory to easyJet worldwide and working on more virtual interline agreements and solutions.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone looking to start their airline, based on your experience with Play Airlines?

Keep it simple. Create your customer journey and choose your strategy based on that journey. Do not make long-term agreements to begin with, and keep your options open to follow the fast-growing industry. Overall, focus on the data from the beginning. Having reliable and live data is critical for decision-making.

Thank you for your answers, Birgir. I learned a lot about your airline operations, what makes Play different from other carriers flying from or to Iceland, and your sustainability goals.

Play Airlines Airbus A321neo TF-PLB. Photo: Marty Basaria/Airways

PLAY Operations, Fleet

In April 2021, a share offering raised US$47m, largely from Icelandic financial institutions, and a new CEO and board were appointed. The airline received its air operator’s certificate (AOC) from the Icelandic Transport Authority on 16 May 2021, then finalized A321neo lease agreements with AerCap and Airbus that month.

PLAY launched twice weekly Reykjavik-London Stansted service with A321neo equipment on June 24, 2021, followed by six other European destinations in Jun- and Jul-2021.” – according to CAPA – Centre for Aviation’s Airline Profile.

The carrier’s plan in CY2023 is to expand its Airbus fleet to 10 aircraft. Currently, they have five Airbus A320neos and three Airbus A321neos. OG has an order for an Airbus A320neo and an Airbus A321neo. These airframes are going to be delivered later in 2023.

Featured image: Marty Basaria/Airways

Published aviation photographer and travel lover from Hungary. Specialized in route network and sustainability. Furthermore, I am a website developer and UI/UX designer.

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