Need I say Moores

Flying long haul with Norwegian

Norwegian’s long-haul expansion has made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, but is the product any good? The simple answer is yes, but.

After writing about the politics of the Norwegian long-haul debate, I finally got to experience their long-haul product first hand. The flight was booked as a normal fare-paying passenger; this wasn’t a press trip.

Norwegian wasn’t the only option for my London-New York trip, but they had the best fare at £334.30 ($422.92), which drew me in. By the time I got my payment card out, £100 in ancillaries had been added to the bill (one checked bag, allocated seating and an inflight meal on each leg).

I rarely buy add-ons and wouldn’t have chosen all these services, but they were cheaper bundled (£50 each way) and I wasn’t sure if my cabin bag would fit the weight restrictions. Frankly, I was impressed they’d got me to part with my money. The £434.30 fare was still more than competitive and the booking process was simple, clean and clear. I received text message updates throughout my trip.

The only downside of my outbound flight was the lack of an online check-in option. This may have been user error, but I travel a fair bit and it wasn’t obvious. At Gatwick, I used self-service check-in, which was quick and easy. The same wasn’t true for my return from JFK, where I used a kiosk and went to security, where I was told I needed a hand luggage approval stamp on my boarding card. If there is a process that needs to be followed, it helps if you tell the passenger in advance.

I returned to check in (at JFK) and joined a huge queue. When I got to the desk, I was told extremely bluntly that my cabin bag was too heavy and had to go in the hold. This was not at all unexpected (I'd anticipated it when I booked), but the abruptness was absolutely unnecessary. The check in experience definitely needs work.

Back to my outbound flight and, at Gatwick, the boarding process was smooth and tightly managed. Once onboard, Norwegian did something I’ve not experienced with any other airline; they promoted their aircraft. The main automated briefing explained the benefits of the 787 in simple, passenger-friendly terms – including its cabin altitude, the “sunglasses mode” dimmable windows and even where the toilets are located. Passengers are unlikely to know the benefits of a new aircraft unless you tell them. Nicely done.

They also ran through how the product works. When you change the script, people feel uncomfortable, so teaching them what to expect is helpful. Any onboard purchases – including paid blankets and headphones (see photo) - are made through the inflight entertainment (IFE) system. They encourage you to use the system as though you’re ordering cinema refreshments to be delivered to your seat. It’s very slick; passengers just swipe their payment card once to pay for any extras. This is clever marketing. If you have to physically pay every time, you will spend less.

Norwegian made a name for itself by being pretty much the only European low-cost carrier to offer free WiFi on its short-haul flights, so the lack of WiFi on long-haul was a bit surprising. I typically don’t use IFE, but I did on this flight (using my own headphones) and it worked well.

I pre-ordered food when I booked my flight and the experience was just like a regular long-haul flight, with a drinks trolley service and two meals delivered at the normal times. The crew were friendly and approachable.

I couldn’t fault the service I had up until this point, but the extremely high standard set by the outbound flight made the return very disappointing. Three days before my departure from New York, I was told that the return flight would be operated by an A330 from Spanish wet-lease operator Wamos Air. Wamos who? None of the ATW team had ever heard of this airline, although I knew their predecessor brand, Air Pullmantur.

To be fair on Norwegian, I was given fair warning and the option of free rebooking or a refund. “The inflight entertainment is limited,” they said, and I was sent a text message giving me a link to download some content. By limited, they meant none (pictured here on the left). Not only no seatback screens, but no central screens, airline-supplied portable devices, or anything at all, not even a headphone jack. I haven’t had that on a long-haul flight since the 1980s.

The Wamos flight was lacking in terms of basic inflight comfort too. It was an overnight flight, but there weren’t even blankets or pillows. Paid or unpaid, it wasn’t an option in economy. These absolute basics were only available for business passengers. Meanwhile, meals were served to everyone, whether you’d paid or not. Wamos Air is simply not equipped to replicate Norwegian’s buy onboard model.

Norwegian has had the Wamos Air A330 on wet lease since March 31, covering London-New York for a 787 which is undergoing repairs and won’t be back in service until April 24. A Norwegian spokesperson said the airline wanted to offer passengers an option to fly, rather than cancelling the service outright. The airline apologised for the change and accepted that it may not meet customer expectations.

I was very satisfied with my booking experience, the outbound flight in its entirety and the level of communication from Norwegian. The return was disappointing – and would have been worse on a non-night flight – but this wasn’t Norwegian’s normal product.

I would fly with Norwegian on long-haul again without hesitation and would even re-route to use them, within reason. They’ve set the bar high for their more expensive rivals, who are right to be worried about this relative newcomer’s expansion. Forget about politics, let the market decide.

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@penton.com

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