BUENOS AIRES – This Wednesday, the first ever budget flight from London to South America departed from Gatwick airport. Fares on the 14-hour Norwegian Air Shuttle flight to Buenos Aires start from £259 one-way.
The seats are tightly packed and food and luggage cost extra, but the no-frills model of flying, so well established on short-haul routes, is becoming increasingly common on intercontinental flights.
A new breed of low-cost carriers such as Norwegian, Wow, and Primera are taking on the old guard such as British Airways and Air France-KLM in the skies above the Atlantic.
In fact, Norwegian has just beaten British Airways’ record for the fastest transatlantic flight in a subsonic aircraft after one of its planes made the journey from JFK in New York to London Gatwick in just five hours and 13 minutes.
Norwegian has rapidly expanded since it started as a small regional airline flying between Bergen and Trondheim in 1993. Bjorn Kjos, a former paratrooper and pilot, has turned Norwegian into Scandinavia’s largest airline and the third-biggest budget carrier in Europe.
The U.K. has been at the centre of its growth plan. It flew 5.8 million passengers from the UK and Ireland and launched more than 15 routes in 2017, including new routes between Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Shannon to smaller east coast US cities such as Providence, Hartford and Stewart.
But it is Gatwick that is the key to the airline’s ambitions. Whilst legacy carriers tend to focus on the more lucrative but expensive takeoff and landing slots at London Heathrow, Norwegian recently secured an additional 28 weekly slots at Gatwick. It hopes to build on its existing routes to nine US cities, Singapore and now Buenos Aires.
“The U.K. will be at the heart of our continued global expansion and we remain fully committed to the market. With huge global ambitions, we’re confident that the UK can offer Norwegian a springboard to further expansion.” says 71-year-old Mr Kjos.
Norwegian won the prestigious ‘Airline of the Year’ award from the CAPA Aviation Awards for Excellence. The judges commenting: “Norwegian has blazed a trail that others are now following. The impact on new North Atlantic traffic in what was previously considered a mature market has already been remarkable.”
Norwegian’s price strategy is based on flying a young fleet of aircraft such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which burn less fuel per passenger compared to other long haul aircraft.
However Norwegian’s rapid rise has led some to question whether its financial model is sustainable. By the end of 2019, Norwegian’s fleet will have increased to 193 and the airline has borrowed heavily to buy new aircraft.