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Norwegian Flies to London, for Now

Despite some opposition, Norwegian launched its new low-fare nonstops to London/Gatwick from three U.S. airports last week: twice a week from Ft. Lauderdale, twice a week from Los Angeles, and three times a week from New York/JFK. Schedules are the standard transatlantic pattern: overnight to London, day flight returning. Norwegian touts “affordable” fares, and its prices, as posted, are generally lower than comparable nonstop fares on the giant lines. Norwegian’s fares vary from flight to flight, but I sampled typical round-trip summer (mid-August) and winter (mid-January) round-trip fares to London/Gatwick:

  • From Ft. Lauderdale: Economy, $1,077 in summer, $612 in winter; premium, $2,263 all year. Cheapest major-line summer fares (from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami): economy nonstop, $2,013; economy one stop, $1,341; premium, $3,246.
  • From Los Angeles: Economy, $1,360 in summer, $646 in winter; premium, $2,263 all year. Cheapest major-line summer fares: economy, $1,547, premium, $3,985.
  • From New York: Economy, $1,160 in summer, $562 in winter; premium, $1,945 all year. Cheapest major-line summer fares: economy, $1,046; premium, $2,116.

For now, the only route where Norwegian has a big price advantage is from Ft. Lauderdale, where the nonstop is a lot less expensive than competitive nonstops from Miami. The New York situation may be something of an anomaly, with Norwegian’s fare undercut a bit by Virgin Atlantic; Norwegian’s fares on all routes go down sharply after August.

Norwegian’s lowest economy fares include one carry-on bag, with checked bags, seat reservations, and meals available at extra cost. Alternatively, a $59 “plus” package includes two meals, one checked bag, and an advance seat reservation. Change fees are lower than on major lines: $125 each way for a ticket change; $60 each way for a name change, although changed itineraries may be subject to higher fare at the time of change.

All flights are in new 787s, with a personal entertainment touch screen at each seat but no Wi-Fi. Economy seating is at a relatively standard—and tight—nine across (three by three by three) and a 31-inch pitch. Premium seating, at seven across (two by three by two) and a 46-inch pitch, would appear to be one of the best premium-economy options among all transatlantic lines.

Norwegian continues to fly its older routes from Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and Orlando to some combination of Bergen, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm, but today’s big focus is on the London routes, typically the most important and most competitive of all international airline routes to/from the U.S. And, at least so far, Norwegian’s entry doesn’t appear to be the game changer that, for example, Freddie Laker’s Skytrain was almost 40 years ago, for the following reasons:

  • Yes, it’s undercutting the majors a bit in economy, but the product is merely competitive and certainly neither highly original nor especially good.
  • Norwegian’s premium-economy product looks more than competitive with other giant lines’ offerings, but it’s priced far too high to attract many leisure travelers seeking escape from cattle-car economy.

Possible competitive responses remain to be seen, as does Norwegian’s ability to attract year-round passengers, especially the all-important business travelers. And lack of a major-alliance frequent-flyer membership doesn’t help that prospect.

In addition to possible competitive responses, Norwegian still faces potential challenges in the U.S. courts and Congress. Airline managements and unions alike are trying to deny its entry to the U.S. transatlantic market because, as they claim, the lax regulatory system in Ireland, where Norwegian moved its nominal base, along with some Asian staffing sources, amount to exporting U.S. jobs, or, as some put it, “Walmarting” the U.S. airline business. Even some consumer advocates are hedging their positions on this issue; they’re worried, probably rightly, about unfair competition and, probably wrongly, about safety oversight.

For now, Norwegian remains a clear choice for travelers on its older nonstops to Scandinavia; routes where it flies the only nonstops available. To London, it’s a good economy choice whenever its fares are more than a few dollars below the competition, but otherwise certainly not a no-brainer.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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