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Best of Airways: Norwegian Premium Oslo-Fort Lauderdale “Quirky, Controversial, Cool, Cost-Effective”

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Best of Airways: Norwegian Premium Oslo-Fort Lauderdale “Quirky, Controversial, Cool, Cost-Effective”

Best of Airways: Norwegian Premium Oslo-Fort Lauderdale “Quirky, Controversial, Cool, Cost-Effective”
January 22
08:15 2018

Written by Chris Sloan • Airways Magazine, November 2017


MIAMI — I am not going to attempt to bury the headline. I recently flew Norwegian’s Premium cabin product, and I was impressed. There, I said it. I know this review will elicit a mix of ire, anger, and cynicism. I get that.

Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA (DY) is an aggressive, clever, and disruptive competitor in every market it flies—especially long-haul. In particular, their subsidiary Norwegian Air International (NAI) is perceived by many to exploit loopholes, allowing their crews to be paid below international rates and not conform to internationally work rules. If you work in the airline industry, you’re either for them or against them, but you are more likely against them.

Your angst is understandable. In just 15 years as an LCC, Norwegian has become the third largest of its kind in Europe. It is the biggest airline in Scandinavia, and the ninth in Europe in terms of passenger numbers. Among many accolades, for the last three years, Skytrax has recognized Norwegian as the World’s Best Low-Cost Long Haul Airline.

Before May 2013, Norwegian was largely unknown outside Scandinavia and Northern Europe. It had no long-haul presence in the world, including the US. As of August 2017, it offers 52 transatlantic flights from 13 US airports to Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as six to the French Caribbean, totaling 58 routes out of the United States.

This expansion is continuing at a breakneck pace with new destinations Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Austin, Boston, and Singapore scheduled to come online in 2018.

Existing US gateway markets like New York (JFK), Newark (EWR), Los Angeles (LAX), and Fort Lauderdale (FLL) are adding dots and destinations to the network. By flying to non-Scandinavian destinations such as Paris-Orly (ORY), Barcelona (BCN), and London-Gatwick (LGW), Norwegian has provoked the sleeping bears—the European legacy competitors. These carriers have responded with low-cost spin offs, like IAG’s Level, Lufthansa’s Eurowings, and, most recently, Air France’s Joon.

To make matters worse, Norwegian is creating a new LCC operation in Argentina—a market it feels to be underserved.

Next to Norwegian’s voracious network ambitions, Emirates’ (EK) controversial New York’s JFK to Milan-Malpensa (MXP) and EWR to Athens (ATH) routes seem almost like a sideshow.

From a business perspective, the airline has invited its share of controversy for its disruptive adventurism. Norwegian has not been shy about substantially underpricing competitors to the point of financial pain, circumventing the intent of international labor laws and regulations by creating multiple AOCs to lower costs, exploiting or—some say—flouting Open Skies, and now launching potentially game-changing ultra-low-cost-long-haul services across the North Atlantic with the Boeing 737 MAX.

Even Norwegian’s CEO Bjørn Kjos told Airways that he didn’t guarantee success. “We have to disrupt ourselves,” he said.

The airline makes no apologies for its Viking-like, unorthodox aspirations. Norwegian’s sole concerns are for its passengers, shareholders, and employees (though many disagree with the latter two).

If there’s an airline attracting schadenfreude from its competitors and critics, it has to be Norwegian. With the ‘Gulf 3’ languishing, no airline in the world seems to have a bigger target on its back than Norwegian.

If its recent financial results and internal strife are any indication, Norwegian’s far-flung adventures are hardly assured success. Though its innovative Stewart, Providence, and Hartford 737 MAX services seem to be performing beyond industry expectations.

In this review, we make it all about Norwegian’s nontraditional Premium Class passenger experience and its value proposition from a customer’s point of view.

I was a paying customer on a recent Norwegian flight from Oslo (OSL) to FLL at the pointy end of the plane. The airline’s passenger experience philosophy and execution are certainly consistent with its unorthodox, contrarian business model.

PHOTO: Author.

The service is far from perfect, and expectations have to be managed. Let’s begin with a ‘Tail Tale of the Tape.’

THE VALUE PROPOSITION: A COMPARISON


No trip report on Norwegian can be complete without looking closely at the pricing and value proposition. So some competitive context is in order.

Norwegian’s Premium product is a fantastic deal no matter how, or when, you price it—whether as an upgrade to its Economy cabin or against its competitors.

OSL to FLL is a route exclusively beholden to Norwegian. On August 7, 2017, Low Fare Economy Class cost US$620, with everything from bags, drinks, meals, to seat selection being a la carte unbundled—true ULCC stuff.

Low Fare Plus includes a bag, seat selection, drinks, and meal, at US$710. And Low Fare Flex adds cancellation and changes to the itinerary.

Upgrading the same flight to Premium Class (it’s not called Premium Economy), costs US$950—US$240 more than Low Fare Plus.

Upgrading from Low Fare Flex to Premium Flex at US$1,269 is US$349 more—money well spent if you ask me. It’s a nominal upgrade amount, especially when you consider what it costs to upgrade from Economy to a true Premium Economy cabin on a competitor like British Airways (BA) or Air France (AF).

After studying the market, and comparing Norwegian to BA, for example, I noted that you could bring two guests along with you on Norwegian in Premium for the price of a single ticket on BA’s World Traveler Best.

Norwegian operates with significantly lower labor and equipment costs than BA: a more fuel-efficient, comfortable Boeing 787-8s versus BA’s significantly older 777-200s, fitted with a three-class cabin that holds 24 World Traveler Plus seats with a 38” pitch and an 18.5” width in a 2-4-2 abreast configuration.

Norwegian’s 32 Premium seats generously serve up a 46” pitch and a 19” width in a 2-3-2 abreast configuration—and with much larger embedded IFE screens.

The Economy Class cabins are much more competitive between the two with very dense configurations.

TESTING THE VIKING SHIP


In Oslo, Norwegian offers Fast Track check-in and lounge access via a shared facility. I was doing a rapid transit from another Norwegian flight from Tromso, above the Arctic Circle, so I was unable to avail myself of those amenities.

Besides, Norwegian’s lounge is located before the F Gates passport control, so it’s not particularly convenient for a last-minute snitch of spirits when immigration lines can be unpredictable. I also pre-boarded to take a few snaps, so I didn’t partake in the boarding process.

In Tromso, however, I had been able to use Norwegian’s automated check-in and bag self-tagging kiosk. Just drop the bag and go. As an American, it was odd to perform this task without any human interaction whatsoever.

Norwegian has now flown more than 4 million passengers between Europe and the US since the first transatlantic service began in 2013. PHOTO: Norwegian.

Upon boarding the newish Norwegian 787-8, I was immediately struck not so much by the aircraft but by the perky, cheerful, informal, and smartly attired crew.

Their American accents belied that they were working for a foreign carrier. Our seven cabin crew—five in Economy and two in Premium—were based in FLL and JFK. Barcelona and Bangkok (BKK) are bases for other Norwegian long-haul cabin crew, though the controversial BKK based cabin crews don’t fly the U.S. routes. The airline has come under fire from its competitors by basing crews in foreign countries other than Denmark flying under different operating certificates, often where labor costs are lower and work rules are different.

While Dublin crews fly the new 737 MAXs on the North Atlantic routes, the Dreamliners are staffed by the long-haul division. The diversity and casual air of the crew felt similar to that found on JetBlue (B6) flights.

I quickly found my place on the aisle in seat 4G. The single Premium cabin has four full rows in a 2-3-2 configuration with an additional row of two pairs of two seats.

Norwegian’s 787-8s and 787-9s hold 259 and 109 passengers, respectively, in the Economy cabin. Seat width is 17.2″, but the pitch at 31-32″ in a nine-abreast cabin is no tighter than in most legacy carriers’ densified long-haul Economy cabins. PHOTO: Author.

I have flown the Dreamliner six times, but I confess I had never flown it long-haul on a flight exceeding five hours, so my excitement was gathering. I was anxious to put the 787’s famed attributes to the test.

I even secretly hoped for some turbulence to experience the gust suppression. The large windows were already welcoming by allowing copious amounts of light into the cabin. This feature is one that I vividly remembered from my last 787 flight, in 2015.

The seats were comfortable enough. Finished in gray leather, they were a step above domestic First Class, especially in terms of their 46” pitch. They recline to 45 degrees, much like the Sleeperette seats of old. The intimate cabin did look a little worn and, being sold out, quite crowded.

Norwegian’s 787-8s and 787-9s hold 259 and 109 passengers, respectively, in the Economy cabin. Seat width is 17.2″, but the pitch at 31-32″ in a nine-abreast cabin is no tighter than in most legacy carriers’ densified long-haul Economy cabins. PHOTO: Author.

There was a single USB port embedded in the IFE screen and a 110V-power port per seat that was both welcome and expected.

During the boarding process, it became apparent that Norwegian’s Premium cabin occupied its specific niche between Business and the typical Premium Economy. There were no amenity kits or menus, and the pre-departure drink was a choice between water, orange juice, and apple juice. No spirits were offered—even with the 15:00 departure. Cool blue headphone pods did grace each armrest, however.

we were smoothly on our way, with the signature whisper-quiet Dreamliner takeoff roll propelling us into the skies. Just seven minutes into the flight, our cabin crew closed the curtains and, in a synchronous fashion, went to work.

INFLIGHT SERVICE


Almost immediately, Flight Attendants passed through the cabin with a drink cart. The bar trolley was fully provisioned with rum, cognac, whiskey, scotch, beer, a red Shiraz wine blend, a white Sauvignon blanc, sparkling wine, and Baileys Irish Cream. I chose the Shiraz. It was served in a plastic cup, with no pretensions to be anything but that.

With my glass in hand, the IFE was beckoning for a little attention of its own. The monitor flipped up from the front of the seat, with the remote conveniently located to the right of the base of the bottom cushion, even though the monitor itself was touchscreen.

The Android-based IFE had a decent, but certainly not exhaustive, catalog of movies both new and old, TV shows, and documentaries. I counted about 100 videos, which included, for the AvGeek, The Making of a 787 in Three Minutes, The Story of the 737-800, and numerous promotional videos including profiles of the ‘Scandinavian heroes’ who adorn the tails of the airline’s planes.

Strangely, there were no audio or music channels. Wi-Fi, although free and standard on the entire NAS European fleet, is not offered as of yet on the Dreamliner, either, but it is coming.

The comfortable 32 Premium Cabin recliner seats on Norwegian’s 787s are tantamount to a standard domestic United States First Class seat in terms of width at 19″, but pitch is generous at 46″. The seats are manually controlled, off the shelf items. PHOTO: Author.

Still, there was plenty to keep one occupied. The duty-free menus enabled shopping for perfume, cosmetics, sweets, and tobacco. All ordering and payment were done from the seat, on demand—no annoying carts and sales pitches cruising the aisles.

I am not one for retail therapy, but I do love a good moving map and Norwegian had one. The very responsive map offered multiple views: cockpit with air speed and altitude indicator HUD, a compass, follow-the-plane, world view, top-view, and off the left and right wing.

The single Premium Cabin of Norwegian’s 787-8s and 787-9s has capacity for 32 and 35 passengers, respectively. The comfortable leather-bound reclining seats are configured 2-3-2 abreast. PHOTO: Author.

CONTRARIAN CATERING


A Viking ship travels on its stomach, and so does a Viking airline. And the catering was where things got interesting. The chipper crew rolled the trolley down the aisle. There were no menus or multiple courses. Instead, a long rectangular but stylish bento box-like package, with a choice of three mains, was offered to the guests. These boxes were so Millennial that they could justify a YouTube unboxing video.

Regardless of what one ordered, all meals shared the same salad and dessert, in this case, quinoa and apple cake. The cutlery—again making no pretentions—was plastic. But what went into your palette was what mattered.

In the offing were: pasta with mixed vegetables and crawfish sauce; seared salmon and cream sauce with pumpkin purée; or beef with apple balsamic, green beans, and potatoes with mushrooms. I can attest to it being much tastier than it looked, exceeding the typical airline steak. The potatoes had a nice kick to them.

The Premium Cabin meals are served in a distinctive and unusual ‘bento box’-type packaging, with all courses served at once. This is one of the quirkier touches of Norwegian. PHOTO: Author.

As the first meal service was cleared, an after-dinner cognac was served, the LED mood lighting dimmed, and the Dreamliner windows were electronically dimmed. An advantage of this quick service was that it afforded plenty of time for sleep, work, entertainment, or socializing. With time to burn, I decided to chat with the crew.

THE SECRET SAUCE: NORWEGIAN’S CREWS


Often, long-haul flights are staffed by more senior crews who are trained to give customers their space and often tend to be a bit reserved. By contrast, Norwegian’s young crews are enthusiastic and gregarious. I found them to be the most appealing part of the flight.

Vivi Chestnut, who had voluntarily left a US mainline airline to join Norwegian, explained her passion for her job. “We are one Norwegian. I came from a previous carrier, and I have recaptured my love again for flying. It truly is like a family.”

That said, the airline’s unusual long-haul in-flight practices, where customers aren’t familiar with unbundling and have certain expectations—particularly with catering—require the crews to go the extra mile in explaining the differences.

“We have to educate people—particularly Americans in Economy, who may be used to frills like a meal—that we are an LCC. Our European customers are more familiar with the concept,” said Chestnut. “But we get our passengers to their destinations safely, comfortably, and on nice new aircraft.”

In spite of the airline’s reputation for controversy—or perhaps because of it—Norwegian’s crews are quick to defend their company and espouse its virtues. I heard over and over again how quickly they got promoted to gain seniority, were given preferred routes and got to fly brand new aircraft. No one complained about work rules or pay, even with my promise to respect their anonymity in my review. They all seemed like a genuinely happy bunch.

The crew members were quick to point out that Norwegian was providing jobs to Americans. Fort Lauderdale is a leading US long-haul base and employs 200 FAs as well as Pilots. New York employs 500 FAs. American crews are trained at Pan Am Flight Academy in Miami. The LGW- and BCN-based long-haul crews, of which there are 600 and 200 respectively, are trained by Virgin Atlantic at Gatwick.

Controversially, Norwegian crews fly under three different AOCs: NAI (all European bases outside of Norway, headquartered in Dublin); NAS (long haul, headquartered in Oslo); and NAUK (the new Argentinian and Singaporean LCC, headquartered in the UK).

Nicolas Piedra Buena, a Cabin Check Supervisor, summed it up best when he said, “You have to believe in the concept to excel here. And we believe in it.”

As the flight droned on, hunger naturally set in. It was here that Norwegian’s quirky inflight approach again came into play. Throughout the flight, Premium beverages were free and on-demand. The FAs didn’t pass through the cabin with any drink service. The goal was to maximize sleep and not interrupt the flight with noisy, cumbersome carts. However, this would need to be communicated, to avoid passengers perceiving the crews as apathetic. After the erstwhile enthusiastic service, I asked myself, “Are the cabin crew taking a siesta?”

Unusually, mid-flight snacks aren’t gratis regardless of class. They are sold onboard a la carte via the IFE much like on Virgin America (VX) and include sandwiches, salads, fresh fruit, boxes of sea salt chips, cashew nuts, brownies, muffins, cookies, and other treats.

The beverages flow freely throughout the flight, though even in Premium any snacks between meals are buy-on-board. PHOTO: Author.

I decided to give them a go. I selected a gluten-free brownie as a test, swiped my credit card, and, faster than you can say “Amazon Fresh”, it was delivered.

About 90 minutes before our arrival into FLL on this nine-hour sortie, the time had come for the second meal service.

Trotted out once again were the bento boxes with the cute phrase “Served with clouds on the side” inscribed on the box.

The cheerful, and motivated crew was one of the best features of the Norwegian flight. Their enthusiasm for their jobs and their airline was infectious. PHOTO: Author.

The mystery box revealed chilled roasted chicken with dill sauce, herbal potatoes, Camembert cheese, a roll, and a piece of milk chocolate. As a sort of parting salvo for consuming all box’s contents, an inscription appeared where the food had sat: “Empty box = full tummy.”

HEADING INTO PORT


Like everything Norwegian, efficiency and speed were hallmarks. Our meal boxes were picked up quickly as we descended into FLL, picking our way through some menacing summer clouds.

In the final minutes of the flight, I reflected on what an unusual experience this had been, and how important it is to frame expectations. This wasn’t Premium Economy or Business Class. It was its own animal. I also noticed how much more refreshed and alert I was. Chalk that up to the 787s cabin features. The Dreamliner does make more than a subtle difference to the passenger, not to mention the environment and the bottom line.

We touched down exactly on time and taxied towards FLL’s International Terminal 4. But wait; there were a few more surprises left! Instead of disembarking via jetbridge, we alighted from the Dreamliner onto the tarmac and into a bus—old school! With the sweltering temperatures, and having begun my day above the Arctic Circle, I felt like we had arrived at the old Doha Airport.

The second surprise wasn’t nearly so pleasant. In fact, it was downright nasty. After a quick Global Entry clearance, it took over 90 minutes to receive our checked luggage. And we were not the only ones by any means. With no communication, no Norwegian representatives, a sweltering space, and being constantly reprimanded for using our smartphones a baggage-claim mutiny seemed imminent.

As Norwegian and other airlines expand at FLL, they must pursue this problem, as it mars the entire experience.

Factoring out that ending, I converted my curiosity into compliments, rating Norwegian’s Premium cabin highly.

Even the crew admitted it was a work in progress, but they were determined to take it to new heights. And, even if this remained its cruising altitude for years to come, given the value proposition, this cabin would be worth every bit its dollar.

Regardless of how one feels about the airline, it’s hard to dispute that Norwegian’s Premium Cabin not only redefines what an LCC can be but creates a cabin unlike any before it.

Finally, don’t underestimate the good things an inspired and motivated workforce is capable of. Norwegian’s crews, like the Vikings of yore, are ready to conquer any obstacle that stands between them and success.

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About Author

Chris Sloan

Chris Sloan

Aviation Journalist, TV Producer, Pursuer of First & Last Flights, Proud Miamian, Intrepid Traveler, and Did I Mention Av-Geek? I've Been Sniffing Jet Fuel Since I was 5, and running the predecessor to airwaysmag.com, Airchive, Since 2003. Now, I Sit in the Right Seat as Co-Pilot of Airways Magazine and airwaysmag.com. My favorite Airlines are National and Braniff, and My favorite Airport is Miami, L-1011 Tristar Lover. My Mantra is Lifted From Delta's Ad Campaign from the 1980s "I Love To Fly And It Shows." chris@airwaysmag.com / @airchive

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