By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
Recent airline news included one really big deal: The Department of Transportation said it was about to allow Norwegian to operate its flights to/from the United States using a subsidiary corporation based in Ireland. Norwegian wants to pursue aggressive growth through its Irish company, both to escape from Norway’s taxes and regulations, generally, and to fly to countries other than the U.S., to take advantage of a corporate base within the EU with its many “open skies” agreements. This long-overdue approval had been stalled for more than a year by pressure from the three giant U.S. legacy lines and their unions, which clearly do not want Norwegian’s efficient competition.
Norwegian has a lot to offer U.S. travelers. It’s CEO, Bjorn Kjos, looks like he is trying to become the 21st century’s Freddy Laker, challenging the giants with low-fare services on their most important long-haul transatlantic routes. Currently, Norwegian’s Scandinavian nonstops operate New York/JFK to Bergen, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm; Ft. Lauderdale and Los Angeles to Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm; Oakland to Oslo and Stockholm; and Orlando to Copenhagen and Oslo. And it also flies narrow-body 320s in the winter from New York/JFK to Guadalupe and Martinique.
Those are relatively small markets. Norwegian’s more recent push has been to/from London, by far the most important transatlantic destination for U.S. travelers. It flies nonstops to London/Gatwick from Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland. These flights currently operate daily from New York and once to five times a week from the other U.S. points. And it can offer connections through London or Scandinavia to cities all across Europe. It also plans to start flights from Boston to Cork, Ireland — a strange addition, given the sparse connections available at Cork.
What worries U.S. airlines most is that Norwegian has a fleet of 787s with more on order — a plane ideally suited to low-fare, long-range service. You can expect to see some combination of more frequencies on existing routes and London nonstops from additional U.S. cities, and maybe to other big European cities as well. You can also expect some competitive responses from the U.S. giants, along with British Airways — and some interesting summer fare deals.
Norwegian’s product is at least competitive. In economy, its 787s are configured about the same as most other lines: nine-across at 31-32 inch pitch. Its premium economy beats most competitors, seven-across at 46-inch pitch. Norwegian tries to keep its economy fares a bit under the competition, although its base-fare advantage shrinks with its stiff baggage and meal service fees. All in all, Norwegian will be a good choice for many travelers — and a formidable competitor to the giant lines.
There were also two “big deal” items, in the snarky sense that the late Arnold Stang used the term during his prime:
- After a handful of senators and congresspersons tried to squeeze some meaningful consumer benefits into the FAA reauthorization bill, the main remaining “big deal” is a provision that an airline must refund your checked bag fee if it delivers a bag late. The Senate says more than six hours late (12 hours on international flights), the House says 24 hours. Wow! What a deal for consumers! A truly reasonable provision would be that you get a refund if your bag isn’t on your flight. Even six hours is far too loose; 24 hours is ridiculous. And several really important proposals got dropped completely, including a possible safety-based requirement for minimum seat space and a relatively unpublicized but important provision that would subject airlines to state truth in advertising and other consumer protection rules.
- Delta announced — apparently even without prodding from consumer groups — that it would drop the $25 fees for arranging a ticket over the phone or in person at an airport counter. Again, this benefit is pretty slim, given the way most travelers buy online these days. In any case, look for American and United, which typically operate in lockstep with Delta, to follow.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website.)
Tribune Content Agency — April 19, 2016
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