The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He paid Wow Air $201 to get to Iceland. Then he got stuck.

Icelandic budget airline Wow ceased all operations without warning March 27. Watch social footage of the stranded passengers. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Wow Air’s last Instagram post before the airline abruptly shut down captures the splendor of Kirkjufell, a postcard-perfect mountain on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula. But the image quickly became a magnet for sarcastic comments and customer warnings because of its origin: It was taken by a stranded traveler unsure of how he would get home.

“When your flights get cancelled three weeks before your trip and you don’t get refunded” wrote one Instagram user, accompanied by four smiley faces. Another wrote, “I can think of plenty of words to describe wow airlines and amazing isn’t one of them.” Yet another posted a giant “F.”

Austin Graff, a manager of talent branding and recruiting at The Washington Post, had snapped the photo from the Airbnb that he and a friend shared during a jaunt to the island nation. He’d booked the trip after seeing a Facebook post about cheap Wow Air flights to Reykjavik, snaring a round-trip ticket from Baltimore to the Icelandic capital for$201. Graff and his companion were supposed to leave Friday.

Graff was first alerted to Wow Air disruptions on Wednesday, when he saw Twitter chatter about cancelled European flights, and began tracking social media closely. On Thursday morning, while eating breakfast at his hotel, he saw a breaking news alert about the airline’s collapse. Fearing the logistical nightmare ahead — being stuck in a foreign country with a family and job waiting at home — Graff quickly searched the Kayak and Vayama travel sites for a way out.

Within minutes he booked a return flight on Icelandair. It cost $375, a hefty premium over his original outlay, but he chalked it up as the price for peace of mind. He was confident he’d just guaranteed his trip home.

He was wrong.

When it came time to check in for his Icelandair flight, Graff learned that he and his friend had been placed on standby, likely owing to many other Wow Air passengers scrambling to return to America.

Graff again turned to the internet for help, googling “stranded wow air passenger.”

He was directed to Icelandair’s website, which said Wow Air passengers could purchase special, discounted tickets back to the U.S. for $100. But after filling out a Web form and receiving the reference number he was supposed to share with an agent on the other end of a hotline, Graff was instead greeted by an automated phone recording that referred him back to the website where he started.

"It was a circle of no human interaction,” Graff said.

Icelandair’s website said Wow Air customers could reach its reps via Facebook Messenger and Twitter. Graff tried that, too. And Instagram for good measure. No response, he said.

Icelandair did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since Graff’s standby flight wasn’t scheduled to depart for another day, he drove to the airport in Reykjavik Thursday night in an attempt to get some answers: Would he get a confirmed seat or remain in standby limbo? Could he get a “rescue” fare for $100? What about rerouting him through Paris or London where there are more flights back to the U.S.?

But Graff arrived at the airport to find the Icelandair desks deserted. "We went there looking for answers, to talk to a human, but no one was there,” he said.

For some stuck passengers, the cost of staying even one extra day could be a financial strain, he said.

“Iceland is a beautiful country to be stranded in, but it’s so expensive," Graff said.

Many Wow Air customers had been won over by ultra-low fares and an inexpensive Icelandic vacation. But an unscheduled night or two at a hotel, along with food and other costs, may prove more than an inconvenience.

Locals told Graff he is one of roughly 5,000 stranded Wow Air passengers.

Graff is trying to make the best of the situation.

“The dad side of me is a little bit stressed — I want to relieve my wife, and my daughter is mad at me that I’m gone," he said. “But the adventure-seeking side of me is excited about this because I may have more to do.”

Wow Air gave little warning of its demise Thursday — it had been offering sub-$200 fares from Baltimore, Detroit, New York and Boston that day — when it issued an early morning alert announcing that all flights had been canceled and urged ticket holders to look elsewhere to complete their trips.

In a section of the alert with the heading, “What are my rights?” the airline outlined how some passengers may be entitled to compensation. Those who purchased travel insurance or who bought their tickets with a credit card that offers travel protection may be able to recoup some costs, though “such compensation is often limited.”

The carrier said it may be obligated to repay passengers in accordance with European regulations. “In case of a bankruptcy, claims should be filed to the administrator / liquidator,” the company said.

The airline’s customer support account on Twitter was hit with request after request for help. A litany of apologies in public messages also instructed clients to send their booking information through private, direct messages for assistance. Customers complained about canceled flights, demanded refunds and asked for new bookings to continue their journeys.

Those who booked their Wow Air travel on the Hopper app will receive a refund, Hopper’s chief executive, Frederic Lalonde, said Thursday. He also said it will cover rebooking costs for the close to 1,000 Hopper customers affected by the shutdown.

Icelandair had reached an agreement to buy Wow Air last year. Both airlines had been struggling in the face of higher oil prices, slowed tourism to Iceland, and competition from rivals that offered direct flights to Europe. But the deal evaporated.

A private equity firm also recently discussed investing in Wow Air, but last week the carrier announced the suitor had backed out. In a last-ditch effort, just one week ago, the company said it had rekindled conversations with Icelandair for a potential takeover, the Financial Times reported.

Based in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik, Wow Air was founded in 2011, employing about 1,000 people, according to the company’s website. The airline flew 3.5 million passengers last year, serving airports in Europe, the U.S., Canada and Israel.

Wow Air’s end of operations follows the demise of another European low-budget airline, Primera Air, which folded in October, less than two months after launching regular service between Dulles International Airport and London’s Stansted Airport. As with Wow Air, Primera Air’s sudden cancellations left many passengers stranded on both sides of the Atlantic.

On Friday afternoon, Graff and his friend learned they had seats on an Icelandair flight to Dulles International Airport. Others weren’t as lucky. Other jets for stranded passengers were overbooked, he said, and some people might not get home until late next week.

Austin Graff contributed to this report from Reykjavik.