How Play Airlines Is Betting on Cheap, 'No Frills' Fares for U.S. Success
Basic economy and unbundled tickets are here to stay.
Happy Tuesday, kinfolk 👋🏾
I’m often plugged into trends in the flight deals space, and one thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is unbundled fares.
As airfare increases — the average cost for a flight to Barcelona right now is $735, according to Hopper — more travelers may be turning from their favorite full-service carriers, which offer perks like free checked bags, meals, or earnings towards elite status for loyal members, to low-cost airlines to offset the price.
Low-cost options are popular in the U.S. and Europe. Why?
In the hunt for a good bargain on platforms like Google Flights, Expedia, or Priceline, travelers might come across flights to Europe from as low as $99 each way. But what’s the catch? And how have basic economy flights gotten so popular? I reached out to Play Airlines, one of the newest ultra-low-cost carriers on the block, to try to answer that question.
The airline appears to be catered to travelers who want to visit popular European destinations for the same price as a domestic flight in the U.S. Here’s what Play CEO Birgir Jónsson told me in an email:
“Ticket prices will vary based on destination and timing, but Play’s mission is to offer low-cost fares to popular European destinations” —Play CEO Birgir Jónsson
Play isn’t the only low-cost carrier flying between Europe and North America — it isn’t even the newest. Norse, Level, Vueling, and, yes, JetBlue all offer basic economy fares on their flights. Even in Iceland, a Nordic island nation of roughly 372,000 people, Play has to compete with Icelandair, the country’s flag carrier, which also offers unbundled fares.
And in recent years, full-service carriers such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have jumped into the fare wars by offering unbundled basic economy fares that come with a seat (that you’ll often pay extra for) and little else.
But it’s not just flights around the U.S. or to Europe that you’ll see these unbundled fares. Nowadays, you’ll even find basic economy tickets on longer-haul routes, such as New York to Buenos Aires, a 10-hour flight, or Los Angeles to Tokyo, a grueling 12-hour flight.
On the JFK-EZE route above, which American Airlines operates, a basic economy ticket will get you little more than a seat on the plane. If you want to pick that seat, you’ll have to pay for it at checkout or take your chances and let it be assigned to you during check-in. Want to check a bag? That’ll cost you $90 — and you’ll still be in basic economy. In contrast, for $130 more, you can bring a carry-on and checked bag for free in Main Cabin. And you’ll board last, which runs the risk of having the carry-on you’re allowed to bring gate-checked.
You’ll at least earn AAdvantage miles on basic economy fares, which is more than can be said about Delta, which gutted mileage earning on its most restrictive tickets in 2021.
Of course, unbundled fares or basic economy tickets aren’t without criticism. Airline watchdogs have complained that the cheap fares bait and switch unsuspecting passengers who will have to pay more later. Play itself charges extra for things like bringing a carry-on or checking a bag — and it’s more expensive to add on these ancillary purchases after booking.
And, in some instances, unbundled tickets can be the same price or even more expensive than regular economy tickets on full-service carriers, as I’ve found during the reporting of this story as well as in my personal travels.
Still, it’s clear that basic economy — an unbundling of fares that, quite literally, often only provides only a seat — is here to stay. In this regard, this is the market Play targets — travelers who want to get to where they’re going and don’t care too much about how they get there.
The airline wouldn’t tell me where it planned to expand next but said that it planned to serve 40 destinations in Europe and North America in 2023. Play’s fourth U.S. destination will begin service from Washington-Dulles in late April.
Take a look at my interview with Play’s CEO below.
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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Vikkie: Travelers who don't visit Europe often may be surprised to find one-way tickets for as low as $99 each while searching for flights. How does Play keep fares so low, given competition from other ULCCs and mainline carriers, many of which offer basic economy fares?
Birgir Jónsson: Play’s hub-and-spoke model and streamlined service enable it to keep operational costs low, resulting in low prices for travelers. Passengers can customize their price by choosing optional upgrades for their bookings, such as checked bags, special bags for items such as golf clubs or strollers, in-flight meals, and more.
Play is focused on strategic expansions to continue growing at a measured rate to ensure low prices.
Vikkie: Many of Play’s hubs are concentrated at smaller airports (Stewart in NYC, rather than JFK/EWR; London-Stansted rather than Heathrow) versus larger hubs. Why is that?
Jónsson: Many of Play’s hubs are smaller, less crowded airports which benefit both Play and its passengers. The airline benefits from the availability and low cost of small airports, where passengers enjoy lower fares, convenient transportation, and shorter security lines.
Play chose SWF because it’s uniquely situated as a hub for travelers in Manhattan, the growing Hudson Valley area, and surrounding states, offering passengers convenient transportation options and short wait times in security and low costs for parking. Play is also filling a market need at these smaller airports.
Vikkie: The airline has a pretty sizable footprint across the U.S. East Coast — are there any plans to expand beyond the Northeast?
Jónsson: Play takes a strategic approach to growth, making informed decisions about flight routes and destinations. In the U.S. market, Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. fit the airline’s hub-and-spoke model enabling it to provide convenient, affordable flights between the East Coast, Iceland, and beyond in Europe.
Vikkie: Travelers today have many options to choose from for low-cost flights to Europe. What sets Play apart from its competitors?
Jónsson: Play stands out against competitors by offering lower prices than other carriers. With its no-frills approach to travel, passengers can customize their flight experience, only paying for the upgrades they need.
The airline also carefully chooses the destinations it serves, flying out of smaller, more convenient airports over more populated destinations. Unlike other airlines, Play does not believe that bigger is better, instead, the airline focuses on its strategic business model only using Airbus A321NEO and A320NEO aircraft rather than wide-body aircraft.
Vikkie: What can travelers expect on a Play flight?
Jónsson: Play provides a simple and streamlined approach to service, enabling passengers to choose only what they need, from in-flight meals to more legroom to the right luggage size and more so passengers can pay less for their flight and “play more” at their final destination.
Play flights are safe and reliable, with helpful and friendly staff that will guide passengers to their seats and assist as needed. Even the flight attendants onboard are relaxed, sporting casual, gender-neutral uniforms such as t-shirts and comfortable sneakers rather than the traditional high heels.
Vikkie: 2022 saw some pretty big news — new routes, more aircraft — from Play. What can we expect from Play in 2023?
Jónsson: In 2023, Play will build upon a successful first year of operations in the United States, flying over 789,000 passengers in 2022. The airline expects demand to remain strong and has since then hired new employees and added new destinations.
Play continues to add new destinations, aircraft, and employees to accommodate increased travel demand in 2023. The airline has the goal of increasing its total number of destinations to 40 in 2023. Play will continue to operate a strict, data-driven business model making strategic decisions about growth in the United States and Europe in 2023 and beyond.
(Social image courtesy of Play Airlines)
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