by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, September 26, 2017
Ryanair has been the airline on everyone’s lips during the past week, with the carrier fighting for its reputation amid the chaos of cancelling 315,000 bookings.
But what of the one rumoured to have the sparked the meltdown by luring all its pilots away?
Why should I care about Norwegian?
Norwegian is perhaps best known in the UK for its headline-grabbing fares to the US, Argentina and Singapore(New York for £60, anyone?), but last week it was in the news again as experts suggested it had exacerbated Ryanair's “messing up” of its staff holiday schedule by poaching 140 of the Irish airline’s pilots in just a year.
This week Norwegian further established itself as part of the British aviation furniture when its UK subsidiary was granted permission to fly transatlantic flights. So, who is exactly is the airline which started life in Western Norway in 1993 and does it have the brains and brawn to knock Ryanair from its perch?
Today the third largest low-cost carrier in Europe (behind Ryanair and Easyjet), Norwegian - Norwegian Air Shuttle as it was previously known - began running a regional service between cities on the west coast of Norway, before expanding in 2002 to operate its first UK route - Stavanger to Newcastle.
By 2007, Norwegian was operating out of Warsaw as well as Bergen and had 42 new Boeing 737s on order. Norwegian grew and grew, announcing its long-haul intentions in 2009, before setting up a base in London Gatwick in 2013, from where it now flies to a host of US cities as well as Singapore and Buenos Aires.
Where does it fly?
Though it’s best known for its no-frills long-haul services, Norwegian also serves a number of popular short-haul destinations, likely to be key if it has ambitions of going head-to-head with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair. Currently among its more traditional destinations are a host of Spanish airports, including Alicante, Majorca and Ibiza.
Though the number of destinations from its British hub - London Gatwick - is growing, Norwegian’s clear strength is its coverage of Scandinavia, from where its main hubs of Oslo, Stavanger, Stockholm and Copenhagen serve most of Europe. Ryanair, of course, is renowned for its extensive route map, featuring some of the more obscure corners of the continent, as well as Europe’s more obvious cities.
Asked about plans for its European expansion, a spokesperson for Norwegian said: “Norwegian is an ambitious, growing and our future expansion plans will include both long- and short-haul growth, supported by the large number of aircraft we have on order.”
Is it as cheap as Ryanair?
Taking Majorca (Palma) as an example, Telegraph Travel compared the cost of flights for an autumnal week on the island, flying out on October 21 and back on October 28.
Norwegian’s top offering from Gatwick came to £245.40 (flights only), plus £40 for a 20kg piece of checked luggage, while Ryanair’s best fare, from Stansted, was £315.98, plus £50 for a 20kg checked bag both ways.
In another spot check, on a long weekend in Copenhagen for late November (17-20), Norwegian, again flying from Gatwick, was offering return flights from £71.20 (no luggage), and at reasonable times, while the same fare from Stansted with Ryanair costs £50.38 (though the return lands at 1150pm); it was £84.78 for a more sensible hour.
What about a trip to Budapest next year? Flying to the Hungarian capital on February 8, and back on the 11th, costs £175.90 with Norwegian, and £62.98 with Ryanair – or £49.98 if you don’t mind flying at anti-social hours.
Ryanair still appears to have the edge, and as far as base prices go is hard to beat, selling many destinations from just £14.99, but Norwegian is not too far behind, offering popular hotspots from £29.90.
How do they compare on extra charges?
- Ryanair charges £11 for priority seats with extra leg room (and £2 for basic seat reservation); Norwegian charges £7-16 (£25 for long haul). Ryanair win
- Ryanair charges £15 to reissue a boarding card at the airport; Norwegian does not charge. Norwegian win
- Ryanair charges £5 for priority boarding; Norwegian charges £9 for its Fast Track service. Ryanair win
- Ryanair charges £50 to check in at the airport; Norwegian does not charge. Norwegian win
- Ryanair charges £20 for a baby flying (under two years, each way); Norwegian does not charge for domestic flights and charges 10 per cent of the adult fare plus taxes for international flights. Norwegian win
- Ryanair does not charges for two pieces of hand luggage; Norwegian does not charge for two pieces of hand luggage. Draw
- Ryanair charges £25 for a checked bag (20kg); Norwegian charges £20 for domestic and £40 for international (both 20kg). Draw
Verdict: Norwegian edge it.
Where do Ryanair and Norwegian rank in the world?
Skytrax's World Airline Awards are generally regarded as the industry standard when it comes to handing out gongs for high-achieving carriers.
Neither Ryanair nor Norwegian is threatening the likes of Qatar Airways or Emirates at the top of the table but, in a competition that takes into account service, value and amenities, which has performed higher.
In 2017, Norwegian came 28th, up from its 2016 ranking of 30th; Ryanair came 76th, up from 108th.
Do Ryanair and Norwegian get on?
Not quite. The Irish airline’s historic rivalry has always been Aer Lingus, the country’s flag carrier, while its relationship with easyJet has always been comparatively professional, but Norwegian’s CEO Bjorn Kjos and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary have recently developed a fair bit of shared animosity.
Last month O’Leary, not one to mince his words, said he thought Norwegian would go bankrupt shortly. “They are running out of cash. They scrabbling around daily,” he said, to which Kjos responded saying that Ryanair was just jealous as Norwegian was stealing all its pilots.
O’Leary has previously dismissed Norwegian as insignificant, while talks of working together appeared to stall recently when the Norwegian airline paired with easyJet instead to provide a short-long-haul connection service.
Kjos is perhaps not so different from O’Leary, however. A former fighter pilot, the Ringerike-born CEO is a fan of straight talking. Responding to complaints in 2014 that Norwegian was becoming less and less a Norwegian airline, Kjos said: “We don’t give a s*** about that. We go where the passengers go. Norway is just too small to survie.” Sound familiar?
Anything else I should know about?
One of Norwegian’s key sources of pride is its super fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliners, of which it has five, with 22 more on order. The airline uses the Boeing aircraft on its long-haul routes, while it flies its 737s on short-haul services. It has more than 100 of the 737’s updated model, the 737 MAX, on order, which also boasts a 40 per cent greater fuel efficiency and quieter engines.
Ryanair currently has 138 737-800s, a newer version of the 737, with an option for another 100 Boeing 7373 MAX 200”.
Norwegian has a marginally younger fleet at 4.7 years, while Ryanair’s is 5.5 years old.