Skift Take

Norwegian is the canary in the coal mine of trans-Atlantic low-cost carriers. Can its financial success match its ambitions?

Despite technical hiccups which have provoked co-founder and CEO Bjørn Kjos to make rush visits to Boeing headquarters, Norwegian takes pride in their Dreamliners.

The airline banks on this aircraft to secure their entry into the United States, and boasts that acquiring so many of them has put Norwegian at an advantage over rivals who also dream of conquering North America. Norwegian is confident that providing passengers with a comfortable long-haul experience, at a low-cost carrier fare, will secure their place at the lead of this new race across the Atlantic. To hedge their bets, they’ve made some interesting choices.

1) Collaboration with Panasonic “to develop the first ever Android powered in-flight entertainment system.”

Choosing Android as their UX platform makes Norwegian’s IFE interface more “familiar” to their personal electronic device (PED)-enamoured passengers. The airline already accommodates their passengers’ preference for streaming content on their PEDs on board their European flights by coupling video-on-demand entertainment selections via their free Ku-band Wi-Fi connection.

They provide free television too, with all entertainment content streamed directly on the passenger’s device. On transatlantic flights, however, Norwegian is limited by the lack of availability of the same Wi-Fi offering which makes them so popular in the continent. They’ve made up for it by developing an innovative in-flight entertainment (IFE). By ensuring their long-haul passengers have a familiar UX interface, Norwegian follows the recommendation of a number of leading industry designers, and sets a new benchmark in their competition against established transatlantic carriers.

Norwegian gives careful consideration to their technology applications and associated UX in other areas. Its feature-rich travel assistant app, for example, ticks a number of the must-have UX features which Tapity shared with us in a previous article, and works on both Android and iPhone devices.

This gives Norwegian a strong showing on the tech-side of the passenger experience. One which even some of the leading carriers do not match.

2) Shaking up inflight catering by allowing passengers to purchase drinks and snacks from their virtual ‘Snack Bar.’

“This is an incredibly popular and appreciated service by our passengers,” Norwegian tells us, “as they can order whenever it suits them and they don’t have to wait for the crew to go down the aisle with their food and drink trolleys.”

If this sounds familiar to U.S. passengers, it’s because it is. Virgin America’s “Red” service also allows passengers to order meals via their IFE screen and have them conveniently delivered to their seat on-demand. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Virgin should feel very flattered. Norwegian adds a twist with the UX and sets a high bar for the transatlantic bar.

3) Dreamliner Sky Interior cabin lighting features.

Norwegian make a point of highlighting their light features, but cabin lighting innovations are a trend of cabin comfort experimentation aboard a number of airlines world-wide, no matter if they fly Boeing or Airbus equipment.

Whether lighting results in direct improvement to the passenger experience is still an open question. Many experts in cabin design believe it has potential to significantly benefit passengers, not just by embellishing the cabin with mood-enhancing color, but by ensuring passengers are well rested, allowing light modes to help passengers crossing time zones better manage their circadian rhythms.

By including it in its cabin design, Norwegian steps up to the plate and makes their aim to compete clear in the light of day, or dusk, or dawn. While there is no evidence that lighting will influence a passenger’s choice of airline, it can’t hurt Norwegian to say they have that feature too.

The Bad News

Norwegian’s primary structural disadvantage against the big players is their cabin configuration. But while the low-cost carrier’s Premium Economy cabin seat product is not comparable even to Virgin America’s first class, or JetBlue’s Mint service, it challenges American Airline’s Main Cabin Extra on comfort, with a 46″ pitch and a 19″ wide seat.

Those dimensions put Norwegian in a good position to compete with most airlines offering Premium Economy seating, with the possible exception of Virgin Atlantic, who offers a 21″ width seat with a trade-off of a 38″ pitch. Add airfare to the equation, and Norwegian wins hands-down.

Recent introductions, like Lufthansa’s new stellar Premium Economy will also pose some stiff competition. Lufthansa will attract that segment of entrepreneurial passenger willing to pay a bit more to get a whole lot more. That said, the final numbers on the fares will still favor Norwegian for many.

Norwegian’s Achilles heel is schedule. It is stretched out in its routes even in Europe, with some routes offered only on seasonal service and others on alternate days of the week. They don’t yet have all the equipment they’ll need to support an aggressive move into the U.S., and are further limited by slots. That’s before mentioning the regulatory and political battle they have to fight.

Even once they get the all-clear on the open skies they hope for, they will have some catching up to do. It will take all these product offerings and persistence to win out, but Norwegian is committed.

These product choices reflect an airline that is not relying on low fares alone to win over customers. Anyone trying to fly on Norwegian’s tail-winds into the U.S. marketplace, will have to give some thought to all these features when planning their long-haul fleet, if they can manage to get their hands on the aircraft Bjørn Kjos has not already ordered.

Yes, Ryanair, we mean you.

Though, to be fair, Ryanair is probably waiting in the wings to see whether the Norwegian conquest of the U.S. flies before they strong-arm Boeing for equipment. If they wanted to, they could.


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Tags: low-cost carriers, norwegian air

Photo credit: The interior of Norwegian Air's Dreamliner. Norwegian Air Shuttle

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