PHOTO: Juraj Patekar.

ROME — Rome wasn’t built in a day, they say. Same for Norwegian (DY), which opened its base in the Eternal City almost five years after launching its first long-haul operations back in February 2013.

It happened on November 9, when flight 7023 took to the skies from Rome-Fiumicino Airport (FCO) for Newark (EWR).

The route, announced in May, was an immediate success with 245 passengers embarking on the 291 seats-capable Boeing 787-8 that operated the inaugural flight.

An 84% load factor for this flight meets the lower end of the 95-96% average figure for the airline on its long-haul services during 2017.

Norwegian Expansion in Rome

“This is huge, and will grow for sure in a few days, when we’ll start to have onboard the Americans returning home after their trip to Rome” comments Alfons Claver, who is in charge of Corporate Communications at Norwegian Air International, the branch of the carrier that operates the flights out of France (Paris CDG), Spain (Barcelona), and now Italy.

“With Rome, we have completed the poker of cities that every American wants to see in Europe after London, Paris, and Barcelona” he continues with more than a bit of Catalan pride.

Remaining in the Italian city Capital, the news have not ended with the November 9 inauguration. Two days later Norwegian started non-stop services to Los Angeles (LAX) and from February 2018 will base a second 787-8 at FCO.

This airplane will allow the EWR service to jump from 4 times to 7 times a week. Likewise, the LAX service to go from two to three weekly rotations and a new US destination to be added, with Oakland (OAK) connected twice a week serving the San Francisco Bay Area.

Buenos Aires could be next. Norwegian has recently launched its Argentinian branch and, onboard the FCO-EWR inaugural, Claver revealed that Italy—with Rome and maybe Milan—are included in the weekly rotations out of EZE that the Argentinian Civil Aviation Authority approved just a few days ago.

Ready to fill the Alitalia void?

For sure, Norwegian adds to the (many) problems that troubled carrier Alitalia will have to face to survive, independently from who will take the helm after Etihad’s failure.

First of all, for the fares offered by the Scandinavian carrier—beginning from $208 (€179) one-way taxes included to EWR and $232 (€199) to LAX and OAK.

Secondly, for the last generation metal used by Norwegian: in a Country like Italy that has no 787s or A350s in its civil aviation register, the Dreamliner is a considerable leap in the future with its comfort, speed and high tech solutions that will include wi-fi onboard from 2018.

Then, there is the price-per-quality ratio: Norwegian’s upper class, called “Premium,” is far better than Alitalia’s “Premium Economy.” It includes dedicated check-in desks, access to lounges and fast tracks at the airport. It allows customers to bring two 44lb (20kg) bags plus one carry-on in the cabin, a full meal, and drinks (including alcoholics) service.

Each seat is fitted with individual IFE screens with on-demand video and tv programs, and a 2-3-2 cross-section cabin with a 46” (116cm) pitch within each row (compared to 38”- 96cm – on AZ).

The width of each economy class seat is 19”. Up front, premium seats are not lie-flat but have a footrest and can recline up to 150°, granting extreme comfort also during night flights.

The price for all this? One-third of AZ’s (or AF’s, LH’s, or BA’s) “Premium Economy.”

Just one example: booking a seat on the FCO-New York trip a couple of months before November 9, Norwegian’s lowest “Premium” fare was available for $1,084 (€930) against the $2,892 (€2,480) required for flying Alitalia’s “Premium Economy.”

The timetable of the Rome-New York rotation was studied for passengers’ maximum convenience, too. Leaving FCO to EWR at 17.25 means peak hour over at Terminal 3 and translates into fast security and immigration controls and hassle-free shops, restaurants, lounge and departure concourse.

From New York, the 11 pm departure allows a full week of visiting or work in the Big Apple before reaching EWR without incurring into the infamous Manhattan’s rush hour, running from 5 to 8 pm.

The Inaugural Flight: FCO-EWR

Last Thursday, it was time for celebration, at FCO’s gate E35. After the traditional ribbon cutting with the airline management (but founder and CEO Bjorn Kjos was absent) and the crew, cake and a glass of spumante were offered to all passengers before boarding.

Traveling in “Premium,” I could also experience the quietness of “Le Anfore” lounge, and when the flight was called for boarding, I was granted priority boarding, quickly setting into 2A.

A pretty duvet was placed on the seat while headphones were distributed later, but there was no amenity kit.

Cabin service started with a drink (water or juices) offered before departure, followed by a proper aperitif including red and white wine, prosecco, beers and super-alcoholics once in the air.

The entirely Italian flight deck crew, led by captain Massimo Colelli (Norwegian hired about 200 personnel in Rome for its long-haul operations,) announced an 8 hour 38 minute-long trip.

Our August 2013-delivered Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner (LN-LNB Thor Heyerdahl) was cleared to fly over the Tirreno Sea and France before joining the Transatlantic crossing route mid-way between Bordeaux and Nantes.

One hour into the flight and cruising at 40,000ft, dinner service started.

No menu cards were distributed. The two FAs dedicated to “Premium” personally described the alternatives to each of the 28 passengers.

That night, the offer included beef steak with fennel and grilled pumpkin, swordfish in Mediterranean sauce or Chicken with veggies.

I went for the steak that was juicy, tender and tasty. Not “airplane food,” but something more similar to what tasted in business classes.

All the wines onboard were Italian, and I opted for a Chianti. The packaging was unique: a pretty box similar to those Bento boxes of Japanese restaurants containing every course, including a bresaola and julienne zucchini starter and a platter of cheese and fruit to close the meal.

Cutlery and glasses were plastic. Service closed with coffee or tea, followed by the distribution of small, pretty bottles of cognac or Baileys Irish cream.

All cleaned up, I distracted myself to the IFE, extracting the video screen from the right armrest.

The device featured 88 on-demand movies and tv programs, games, moving maps including a cockpit view through Heads-Up Display, but, curiously, no music.

Snacks and duty-free goods were available to buy with credit cards and the FAs would take the orders directly to the seat.

Drinks were free for the entire flight, and the FAs frequently passed along the aisles offering water and juice.

One hour to landing, a snack was served. Cold cuts and cheeses accompanied by an orange and grapefruit salad.

After landing on Newark runway 22L, we were greeted with the traditional water cannon salute by EWR’s fire brigade.

Returning to Rome

On the way from Newark to Rome, after checking-in at the two dedicated desks at Terminal B, Norwegian’s “Premium” passengers are invited to visit the “Art and lounge” lounge, situated before security and passport controls.

At EWR there is no fast track, but the late hour allowed speedy procedures before reaching the gate area.

Flight DY7024 was one of the last flights of the day to leave concourse B3, followed only by another Norwegian 787 (to Barcelona) and an Emirates Triple-Seven to Dubai.

Nevertheless, take off occurred 30 minutes after STD, before a 7 hour 20-minute hop overflying Goose Bay, the Atlantic, southern UK, Belgium, Germany and finally Italy.

This time dinner was served as soon as we reached initial cruising altitude, to guarantee passengers with the maximum of rest or sleep.

The 150-degree-reclining seat proved comfortable enough and the electronically controlled window shadow of the 787 that kept the cabin completely dark until one hour before landing (while outside was noon) allowing me four hours of good sleep.

But remember: Norwegian doesn’t provide eyeshadows nor earplugs, so if you suffer for even the dimmest light or the noise of the engines (which is feeble aboard the 787), you’d better have your own to use.

The day started with the mood lighting kicking in with a soft tone of pink and breakfast served.

In the same type of box used for lunch and dinner, I found a hot bagel, butter, and jam plus a platter of cold cuts, cheese, and salad.

Juices, coffee, and tea were served by the FAs from the cart. Forty minutes later we were on the ground at FCO. Satisfied, reasonably rested and happy for traveling in a comfortable way without bleeding ourselves dry.