Story and Photos by: Chris Sloan unless otherwise noted
OSLO, NORWAY – Flying eight hours in Economy Class on a Boeing 737 operated by a low-cost carrier isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, there was very little envy amongst my peers in the aviation enthusiast community. Some even went so far as to call the prospect “masochistic”. Our correspondent Paul Thompson didn’t have glowing things to say about his experience on Norwegian’s North Atlantic Stewart-Edinburough inaugural.
But I was unbowed and in fact even more excited about the prospect. Thirty-three other special passengers and crew shared my enthusiasm as well.
The milestones were pretty obvious. On this last day of June, we would be onboard the delivery flight of one of Norwegian’s first two Boeing 737MAX’s. The initial delivery of 110 MAX aircraft, the airline has on order.
Our flight would become the first passenger carrying revenue flight of Boeing’s 4th generation 737MAX to touch U.S. soil. Our flight would be onboard only the world’s third 737MAX to be delivered out of a backlog of more than 3,700 aircraft.
Assembled guests and passengers were feeling ebullient. Just hours before, Norwegian became only the second operator of the MAX when EI-FYA “Freddie Laker” and sister ship EI-FYB joined the fleet in a brief “Double Delivery” ceremony. EI-FYB was flown sans passengers and flew in tandem just behind us on EI-FYA.
Malindo Air, the first operator of the 737 MAX with just a single example flying had just put its second 737MAX into operation a day earlier. But there was little public fanfare at least open to the media when the Malaysian based carrier received their first MAX. This was likely due to moving target delivery delays due to the GE Leap’s engine maladies.
My adventure began when we boarded the jet bridge from Boeing’s 737 delivery center located at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington. After security and a passport check, the passengers found their seats.
For weight and balance reasons, most of us were assigned seats past row nine for takeoff. Once airborne, we scattered to new seats throughout the plane. I chose row eight A through C just aft of the starboard engine.
At 12:56 PST, EI-FYA pushed back from the delivery center. The takeoff weight was 70 metric tons with 20.7 metric tons of fuel.
After a brief taxi, we were lined up on Seattle Boeing Field’s runway 31L at 1:10 pm PDT. With fleas set at five degrees, we hummed down the runway rotating at 147 knots. During our 38-second takeoff roll with derated power at 90%, passengers were introduced to the power of the CFM Leap-1B engines that were noticeably quieter than CFM56 engines that power the 737NG.
Strangely, there was no applause once in the air as is customary on ceremonial delivery flights.
Nine minutes later, Anders Lindström, head of Norwegian Corp Communications North America, made a PA announcement. Welcoming us aboard he indicated that copious amounts of Champagne provided by InsideFlyer President Tommy Danielson would be served for a toast. That set the tone for the convivial atmosphere of a party in the sky.
As with most delivery flights, the flight was very informal. Without IFE and wifi, it was like the old days of flying: conversation, mingling in the aisles and even playing cards…imagine that!
Members of the cabin crew were specially chosen for the flight as a reward for their exceptional service. In total, there were four cabin and two flight crew members: Dublin, London, Oslo, & Copenhagen based. The flight had two captains, Captain Godfrey Higgins – Director Flight Operations in the left seat and Captain Pat Campbell- Chief pilot in the right seat.
Anne Marie Higgins, wife of Captain Godfrey Higgins (pictured in black) put the improvised slimline “lie-flat” seats to good affect. This was actually her first time flying with her spouse. “I am very proud of his achievements. The difference with the MAX is noticeable because it’s quiet and smooth.”
While most passengers won’t sense a difference between the 737 MAX and the NextGen 737, I found the 737 MAX to be quieter on take-off and cruise. In fact, I measured a noise level of 85db during cruise.
Asgeir Nyseth, COO of Norwegian, said “The MAX is very quiet. I want to see how much fuel we have saved when we land. The MAX will be a game changer for us. We can fly Oslo to Delhi. In 7-8 days it will enter into service on the trans-Atlantic after we install emergency equipment and camera gallery equipment.”
Slimline seats aren’t the most comfortable especially for the 5-6 hour missions this plane will fly. The 30″ seat pitch arm rests didn’t bother me at all. The new slimline seats make good use of reduced pitch, with their literature pockets relocated to eye level.
The firmness, lack of padding, and sliver like armrests do not exude comfort but they aren’t that different from most 737 Economy cabins these days – legacy or LCC. Like all passengers on this flight, I had a row to myself to lay down but naturally, the story would be completely different with a fellow passenger sitting next to me.
All of Norwegian’s 737 are single class and fitted for high load factor operations with 186 seats. This configuration is optimal for low fares beginning at $99 each way to/from Europe but clearly favors profit over comfort. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is proven out here.
Like an airline in the U.S. short that “LUV’s” spirit but is short on frills, the vibe and enthusiasm of the crew is Norwegian’s secret sauce. Norwegians crews are having as much fun as we are even as they have to navigate the passengers jamming the single aisle.
Norwegian crews flying the 787 and temporary 737NG across the Atlantic are specially qualified for long-haul flights. Crews without this qualification continue to fly the 737NG within Europe. As the 737 MAX 8 continues to enter the Norwegian fleet, more of the inter-European crews will become qualified for transatlantic operations. Our intra-European cabin crews was trained for the MAX North Atlantic mission.
Christopher Jones, a flight attendant with four years experience at Norwegian and also the voice of all Norwegian 737 public address announcements, said: “I love Norwegian because it’s so forward thinking, the people are excellent, and the company ethos is fantastic.”
The flight had an philanthropic mission as well.
Tommy Danielsen, Co-Founder of InsideFlyer, who organized the special altruistic auction for the delivery flight, was like a kid in a candy store. His team created an auction for 12 lucky fliers with all proceeds going to UNICEF raising over $24,000 on this flight alone. The number would have been even higher had not the delivery been pushed, and hence other original bidders had to bow out due to timing conflicts.
“We had an idea to do something cool for charity. Norwegian is very charity-minded and the money our auction winners donated is going to do a lot of good for kids in desperate places in the world. As a flyer, I am personally excited. This marks the continuation of a fantastic journey in 2003 when Norwegian Airlines started with four planes. No one thought they would make it and looks at how innovative and successful they are. As a born and bred Norwegian I am very proud of what an airline from a small country can do,” he said.
Michael Young, Scott Ferreira, and 3 other passengers from Phoenix flew on the delivery flight after winning the online auction “I was intrigued by similar events and UNICEF was a good cause. The experience has been great. It’s been first class. They’ve gone all out for us.”
After three hours of flying over Canada, a hot meal was served. The meal consisted of steak with garlic prawns, salmon with herb butter and green beans, or a seafood salad. Ice cream and cheesecake were offered for dessert.
Catering was provided by Boeing and was definitely not the norm for this a la Carte buy-on-board ULCC. Throughout the flight, Champagne and libations flowed liberally.
Norwegian is known for being the first airline in Europe with inflight wifi, the first to offer it for free, and first to offer it on all its short-haul European flights. Currently, Long-haul flights are the exception. Norwegian does not offer inflight connectivity yet on the 737 MAX or 787.
Once wifi arrives there will be a full library of streaming free content. For now, typical TV fare and promotional announcements are displayed on the drop down screens, though not on our flight.
Inflight connectivity on long haul flights is ultimately part of Norwegian’s plans. Speaking to Airways, a Norwegian official confirmed the 737 MAX and 787 fleet will have wifi installed within a year, with the vendor announcement coming “soon”.
A glaring omission for an aircraft whose primary mission in the fleet is the lack of USB and AC power ports. Norwegian’s 787s have this at every seat. Norwegian will eventually use the MAX on short-haul services as well especially during lower seasons on the North Atlantic so perhaps this expense wasn’t something they felt could be justified.
The flight path took us over Northern Washington and gave us breathtaking views of the Candian Rockies, northern Canada, Hudson Bay, and Canadian Maritime Provinces. After a brief two hours period over the open North Atlantic Ocean, we flew over Greenland where we gazed at snow capped mountains and chased the never ending sun at these high latitudes.
737 MAX isn’t yet certified for 180 minute ETOPS operations, though will be soon. This isn’t a problem for Norwegian as their North Atlantic routes are always within a one-hour diversion airport. On the 737 MAX, they don’t carry a third International Officer/Relief Pilot as there is no need.
Speaking of the 737 MAXs flying characteristics, Captain Higgins said “Its only my 3rd flight on the MAX. Already I prefer the handling characteristics and larger flight displays over the NG. It’s responsive like the 737 Classics used to be.”
At 39,000 feet, the MAX flew buttery smooth in cruise the whole way with virtually no chop. It was an absolutely gorgeous, albeit long day, for flying. The sun never set on our narrow body experience.
Bjorn Kjos – Norwegian’s CEO was very personable yet low key throughout the flight. He mingled with passengers, crew, and conducted a few interviews but eschewed any limelight for himself. He did not make the typical CEO address on the PA, seemingly letting the airline’s cheerful service and 737 MAX speak for themselves.
In an interview with Airways, the controversial CEO remarked that “The 737MAX allows us to disrupt the market and disrupt ourselves which is healthy. It allows us to introduce new markets and low fares to passengers and disrupt an industry which is way to conservative. The MAX is an edge that we have over our competitors.”
“It energizes our unique business plan of being able to fly an ultra efficient narrow-body aircraft carrying fewer passengers than a wide-body, between secondary airports where fees are lower and we can do a quicker turn than at big gateway airports like JFK” said an unrepentant Kjos.
We will have more in a High Flyer interview with Bjorn Kjos soon.
As the delivery flight reached the halfway point, the SkyCabin mood lighting scheme transitioned from desert orange to a cool blue. I opted for a power nap with 3 hours left to go. This was not easy as even with a darkened cabin with window shades drawn, we never saw any glimpse of twilight. The early afternoon departure time coupled with the jet lag didn’t help either.
One hour before landing, a generous breakfast service consisting of a cheese omelette, sausage link, fruit plate, a cold meat selection, muffin, yogurt, and fruit was served. I am convinced I gained a few pounds on this flight.
After an impressive final approach, the captains performed a grease job landing on Oslo’s runway 01L at 7:35 am local time. The passengers gave the hardworking crew a round of applause. As the sun rises in Oslo at 4AM at this time of year, it was blindingly bright outside. We were greeted with the customary Water cannon salute in Oslo upon arrival.
EI-FYA was fawned over by Norwegian Air photographer’s and staff and then towed away to begin the installation of its emergency equipment and application of the Freddie Laker sticker. The aircraft itself would enter service “within 1-2 weeks” according to airline officials.
After nearly nine hours aloft, our long haul 737 MAX delivery flight adventure had come to an end. This clearly was a special flight, bearing very little resemblance to a typical Norwegian North Atlantic operation.
This sortie wasn’t luxurious by any means, but a heck of a lot of fun. We had participated in the kind of unique, history making flight that would appeal to many an aviation enthusiast, but would seem absolutely ludicrous to anyone else. And even in our disoriented, jet lagged state we all agreed we enjoyed it immensely.