Norwegian venture into budget long-haul raises the same viability question

Photo: Norwegian Air/Hans Olav Nyborg

Photo: Norwegian Air/Hans Olav Nyborg

IS budget long-haul viable? It is not a new thing, as some airlines had tried and failed. And not many – even the most adventurous, so to speak – are convinced the model that works for the short-haul would work for the long-haul. Yet ever so often enough some daring spirit will step forward to prove otherwise.

Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS) recently launched flights to New York and to Bangkok. The carrier plans to add new destinations pending the delivery of eight B787 Dreamliners, the first of which it expected to receive by the end of this month.

NAS co-founder Bjorn Kjos is not discouraged by the failure of others, notably pioneer Laker Airways that operated services between London and New York in the late `70s and Hong Kong-based Oasis Airlines that plied between Hong Kong and London as well as Vancouver in more recent times. Another airline – Malaysia`s AirAsia X, an offshoot of Asia`s largest budget operator AirAsia – has suspended operations between Kuala Lumpur and destinations London, Paris and Christchurch although founder Tony Fernandes is cherishing hope of resuming the flights. Perhaps, after NAS is proven unequivocally successful.

Mr Kjos said: “New aircraft technology and the forecasts for growth in passenger traffic make it possible.” He explained: “When we did the calculations we could not get the numbers to add up with the old aircraft. We needed the new aircraft. The others did not have the possibility of the Dreamliner and the A350. Before, when you attempted to do low-cost when flying more than eight hours, it just didn’t work.”

No doubt more efficient aircraft help. So too would it benefit all other airlines. It may make the proposition more enticing, but ceteris paribus it does not give budget operators an added advantage over legacy airlines which may even be better positioned in the competition as a consequence.

Clearly the selling point has to be the low fare. But Mr Kjos said it would be a “proper long-haul”, whatever that means. NAS will offer economy and premium economy classes, with ticket options that include meals and checked luggage. Not quite different from most other airlines whether budget or legacy.

Unfortunately NAS`s inaugural flights to New York and Bangkok did not live up to that expectation when passengers without credit cards were refused food, water and blankets. NAS spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen told AFP: `This is totally unacceptable. Norwegian must ensure its passengers are treated well and we apologise deeply.” He added: “We are the first to admit that we have had some start-up problems on the long-haul flights.”

There is hope yet, but the stormy start underlies the kind of issues that are likely to deter many travellers from flying budget long-haul. What you can put up with for a flight less than six hours may become intolerable beyond that time limit.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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