Play Airlines Shake-Up Sees Largest Shareholder Become New CEO

Skift Take

The Icelandic airline’s biggest shareholder has secured his place in the captain’s seat, but will the direction of travel change?

It’s been a dramatic weekend at Icelandic low-cost carrier Play.

Late on Sunday afternoon, it was announced that the airline’s CEO, Birgir Jónsson, is being replaced by Einar Örn Ólafsson, the current chairman of the board. 

Ólafsson is Play’s biggest shareholder and has been its chairman since April 2021. He is a familiar name in the Icelandic corporate scene, having held senior management positions at various local industrial firms. 

In a statement, Ólafsson described the airline as having enjoyed a “great ramp-up phase,” but added that the business had now reached “a turning point”. 

“As the company’s largest shareholder, I’d like to see my investment through. I am very familiar with Play’s operations and employees and can see ample opportunities and exciting projects in the operation going forward.”

Play’s Tricky Winter

The company, which relies on point-to-point traffic as well as connecting the U.S. with Europe, had a challenging winter. Disappointing passenger numbers were blamed on earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which hit demand for Iceland as a tourist destination. 

Flights were also disrupted by strike action at local air traffic controllers in the run-up to Christmas. This saw its on-time performance in December 2023 plunge to 59% compared to a full-year figure of 83%.

The company has reported that the coming spring and summer seasons are looking stronger. However, broader strategic challenges remain.

No long-haul, low-cost carrier has ever truly succeeded in flying the transatlantic. 

Norwegian Air and fellow Icelandic operator Wow Air (where Jónsson was deputy CEO) both failed. As did their predecessors dating all the way back to Laker Airways’ Skytrain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Alongside Play, Norse Atlantic Airways is currently the only other major airline attempting the ultra-low-cost model on transatlantic routes. Speaking at the Skift Aviation Forum last year, Norse President, Charles Duncan described the challenges of being profitable year-round in the transatlantic market. 

Play Has ‘Left Its Infancy’

For his part, Jónsson will continue to work for the airline until early April. He will also take on an advisory role to ease the leadership transition over the coming months.

Jónsson said he is leaving his position “with immense pride,” and described his time at the company as “a real adventure.”

“In a relatively short period of time, we have created a powerful Icelandic low-cost airline with outstanding products, services, and a bright future. Play has now left its infancy and grown up to be a mature airline,” Jónsson added.

The personnel changes kick off an important week for the airline. Its annual general meeting is due to take place on March 21. 

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