by Nick Trend, The Telegraph, February 20, 2018
Last week, Norwegian – the no-frills airline that has expanded so rapidly in recent years – launched its first flight from London to Buenos Aires. It marks yet another step in its onward march into the British market, and the airline now carries 5.8 million passengers a year from the UK to 50 destinations worldwide.
Norwegian’s initial forays were on European routes, but it began flights to the United States in 2014, and now offers 11 cities in North America from three UK airports. Late last year it began services to Singapore – a key hub for flights all over south-east Asia, and to mark this week’s launch to Buenos Aires the CEO, Bjorn Kjos, announced that it was planning further expansion in that continent, as well as new routes in China and Japan using its Dreamliner planes.
So, are we about to see a revolution in long-haul flying to match the impact that Ryanair and easyJet have had on the short-haul market? Maybe. But before we get carried away it is worth checking whether Norwegian’s fares to Buenos Aires actually live up to the marketing hype.
It claims it is offering one-way fares from £259.90 outbound and £265.10 return. Total: £525. That would be a seriously good deal compared to what’s on offer from the dominant airline currently on the route – British Airways. According to Trailfinders, BA has been pitching its starting fares from about £800 for the past few months, and the lowest I could find on the BA website currently was £832 return – £300 more than the Norwegian offer.
But when I searched Norwegian’s website, there were hardly any returns still available for anywhere near the £525 fare, even when I looked as far ahead as 2019. There was reasonable availability in May, October and November this year at around £600 return, but rates were significantly higher than this in the summer. To book the lowest fares you will also need to be prepared to travel with hand luggage only, and take your own sandwiches to see you through the 14-hour flight. If you wanted to include meals and a checked-in bag it would cost you another £100 return. So, while it looks as though Norwegian may well be offering a potential saving of perhaps £200 return on the BA fares, so variable are prices on different dates, it is still worth comparing prices on both airlines before you book.
It may also be that, if a meaningful price difference endures, BA will end up cutting its fares. The airline said last year that it is cramming an extra 52 seats into economy class on some of its long-haul aircraft. While the reduced legroom that results from this is not good news for anyone taller than 5ft 2in, it does mean that it has the potential to respond to the competition and keep headline fares down. I have a hunch, however, that the publicity generated by the Norwegian launch, and the draw of its lowest fares, may well inspire more people to travel on the route. And higher demand would mean that both airlines could sustain their current prices.
So will Norwegian have the same impact as the short-haul budget carriers? The success of Ryanair and easyJet has been founded on high demand and high growth which, combined with efficient services and lower fares, have created a virtuous circle that has led to more of us flying more often to more places in Europe than ever before. Whether there will be the same appetite for travel and potential for growth in long-haul flights is much less certain, but we are in for a fascinating couple of years.
I also think there is another interesting aspect to Norwegian’s new flights. Long-haul travel is not all about price. Unlike a two or three-hour hop, which most are happy to endure in economy class, 14 hours on a plane, especially on the overnight leg, can be a grim experience. A significant number of passengers are prepared to pay extra for more comfort. And this week Norwegian also announced that it is expanding its premium cabin from 35 to 56 seats on the 10 new Dreamliner aircraft which it is expecting delivery of this year. They will offer extra legroom, free meals and extra baggage allowance. On the Buenos Aires route, return fares in this class start at £1,400. This is pitched to compete with BA’s Premium Economy cabin, which offers similar legroom as well as meals and the extra luggage. But BA’s fares in this class currently start at only £1,280 – comfortably lower than Norwegian’s offer.