"Mom Air" promised passengers the world -- but turned out to be a spoof
CNN  — 

Thought 2020 had run out of surprises? Try this contender for the least likely news to finish the year in travel: a new airline.

As the aviation industry struggles to remain afloat, with airlines hemorrhaging money left right and center, it came as a surprise to see the “launch” of Mom Air, a soon-to-be-skyward airline (or so the website promised), connecting Iceland to both sides of the Atlantic.

The livery looked suspiciously like that of WOW Air, which went bankrupt in 2019, only flipped upside down to spell MOM.

The routemap connecting Europe to North America – servicing major cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Boston and Toronto – seemed sensible enough.

But it was Mom Air’s other proposed policies that raised eyebrows.

The airline appeared to be taking a leaf out of the Ryanair playbook, by charging not only for seat assignments, in-flight Wi-Fi and cabin bags – but also toilet paper, soap and even lifejackets (which is illegal).

It even offered “Covid flights,” for those testing positive and those who had already had the disease. These, it claimed, would be staffed by workers who’d also already had it and developed antibodies.

It seemed like a hoax – but encouraged by its more passenger-friendly policies like giving away two free tickets per flight, not demanding payment until two days before takeoff, free cancellation and cheap standby seats, potential customers flocked to its website.

Mom Air also appeared to tick socially right-on boxes, by shining a light on gender equality and vowing to employ as many women as men; and promising to “protect nature to the best of our ability” by carbon offsetting, using recycled materials and going paperless.

The result? Just under 10,000 Instagram followers and 6,000 booking enquiries, according to the CEO, in just two weeks – before the airline had even announced dates and prices.

The great reveal

The "airline" issued free tickets to fans and influencers

There was just one catch. Mom Air CEO Oddur Eysteinn Friðriksson, nicknamed Odee, is an artist. And the project, he told CNN, was to “show exactly how obscure our reality is – that we are talked to through marketing… and that just by setting up a website and sending out press releases, it turned our world upside down.”

In fact, he planned to carry on the project for more than two weeks, but the attention Mom Air received became too stressful. Having been adamant that this was a real airline, both to journalists and fans in a “launch press conference,” and to the lawyers representing WOW Air (which has plans to relaunch), after just 15 days, he confirmed it was an art project.

“It was quite demanding,” he says. “I got 6,000 bookings, 200 complaints, two comments per minute on social media” (CNN cannot verify these claims, although 10,000 people watched the airline’s 41-minute “launch” video on Facebook).

“I was trying to keep up with everything and make it look like there were a lot of people working at the company.”

Some plans ‘make sense’

"CEO" Oddur Eysteinn Friðriksson suggested passengers should pay for their own lifejackets

Mom Air’s proclamations certainly got people excited. At the “launch press conference,” Friðriksson – the son of a marketing expert, and who once designed WOW Air’s beer cans – said that the two free seats on every flight were a device to raise brand awareness. The airline wouldn’t lose money, he claimed in the guise of CEO, because the recipients would have to buy a return flight – plus they’d probably add extras.

Regarding putting everything on sale, right down to the toilet paper, he said that by charging for extras, Mom Air would “lower the cost of the actual seat.”

So, are his plans really that outlandish – or is this where lowcost flying is headed?

Paul Simmons, executive director at Blue Islands, a Channel Islands-based low cost airline which has taken over some of the defunct UK airline Flybe’s routes, thinks that some of Mom Air’s “policies” were decent.

Simmons – who has also worked as CCO for Flybe, Malaysia Airlines, and Air Arabia, and was head of brand marketing at EasyJet – says that the two free seats per flight had legs.

“That could make sense – I can see the benefit of brand awareness through the publicity,” he said. “Most low cost airlines run at a 95% load factor, so there are spare seats. That’s not stupid.”

He was also intrigued by Mom Air’s claim that hotels would part-pay for passengers’ flights – again, Friðriksson said, for publicity. Instead of paying commission to online travel agency sites such as Booking.com, Mom Air’s idea was that the hotel would contribute to the flight of the passengers who booked with them. “That makes sense, given the margin that the OTAs take,” says Simmons.

Where they part company is with the idea of charging for lifejackets (“totally illegal”) and toilet roll (“there are certain things you just can’t charge for. Statutory minimums [including a glass of water, soap and toiletries] are laid down in the rules and regulations.”

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary’s infamous suggestion to charge passengers to use the toilet was, after all, a joke.

Simmons also says that bringing back the once popular concept of standby seats would kill the business. Low cost airlines work on dynamic pricing, where fares start low and rise the fuller the plane gets, and the closer to departure.

“The whole gambit works by getting people to book early,” he says. Promising late deals would tank the airline.

In short, “Some of his ideas are reasonable, but most probably aren’t.”

Päivyt Tallqvist, Finnair’s senior vice president, corporate communications, is also intrigued by Friðriksson’s suggestions, calling Mom Air an “interesting performance.”

“I think the project and the attention it has gathered highlights how passionate people are about travel – especially now that people have not been able to travel normally,” she tells CNN.

“There is always room for innovation in product design, sales and marketing, also in aviation. Having said that, I think safety and reliability are also priorities for the future, as they should be.”

Slots, planes and staff on tap

The "airline" promised to focus on gender inequality, putting women in powerful positions

The project certainly touched a nerve. Friðriksson says that he was contacted by an aircraft leasing company, offering him “planes, staff and services on the ground.”

“A logistics company offered me airport slots. A company that handles marketing for a major European airline said that they wanted to add Mom Air to their portfolio.

“Someone even said they could help me establish a base in Egypt.” He even says he was offered a job by a rival airline. (CNN has not been able to verify these claims.)

Icelandic press even reported that the lawyer for the defunct WOW Air called him a “talented man” and suggested he turn his attention to helping them get the airline back up and running.

But he also thinks people are desperate for good news.

“People saw the airline as a ray of sunshine,” he says. “All these people were so tired of being stuck at home, wanting to travel abroad – it gave them a soothing feeling for a few days to let them dream about doing something else.”

Of course, he also made promises he had no intention of keeping. Mom Air did ticket giveaways on social media, going as far as to send out physical vouchers for a putative flight in 2021-2022.

But he doesn’t feel guilty.

“My main focus was to show the obscurity of how you can just put up a front and tell people you have a company, and people will start believing it and interacting with it,” he says.

“Would you ask other CEOs who claimed they were starting airlines the same question [if they feel guilty]? I feel like because I said it was art, I’ve received more tough questions – questions that the others should have got.

“We’ve seen the ‘launch’ of several new airlines in Iceland this year, but none of them have yet appeared. Lots of CEOs [planning airlines] get worldwide attention but we don’t actually see anything.

“They don’t say where they’re getting the money from, where the planes are from.”

WOW Air’s collapse hit Icelanders hard, he says. In that sense, the launch of the mysterious Mom Air was a political statement.

And his nods to gender equality and the environment, were, he said, poking fun at modern marketing techniques.

“It’s characteristic for companies like this to ‘greenwash’ or ‘pinkwash’ their company, so I was trying to be in character,” he says.

The future of flying?

Artist Oddur Eysteinn Friðriksson at the "launch" of Mom Air

Mom Air may have done its big reveal, but Friðriksson says that some fans are not willing to accept the truth.

“People are still trying to book flights,” he says. “They are emailing, saying, ‘I saw this is an artwork but is there still going to be an airline launched?’

“The project is still alive and I’ll keep collecting data till I’m satisfied and can close it.”

In the meantime, he claims not to have received a single complaint about his hoax – with no word either from the influencers who plugged his fake airline, or even people who “won” free tickets.

And although he has no desire to actually launch an airline, he thinks Mom Air might not be too far from the truth of future low cost flying.

“I definitely tried to push it to the limit of believability, but it’s like when ‘The Simpsons’ predict something.

“Booking flexibility has already come to life [in the pandemic]. And I’m predicting that airlines will advertise free seats in the future, and that local businesses will contribute to the ticket, lowering the cost of travel.

“You could pay $15-20, just to get a customer. You don’t have to discount your hotel room anymore – just buy your customer.”

And as for the toilet paper, he says, “I think that would actually be ideal.

“I think people can be trusted to bring their own toilet paper. Airlines can make them responsible for what they want to use.”

Mr O’Leary, over to you.