It took three years and a pandemic to almost agree with Michael O’Leary, the owner of Ryanair. From January 16, 2021, Norwegian Air ceases to be an airline known for low-cost flights between Europe and the United States and focuses on its survival and on a network of purely European connections. About two thousand people – some even in Italy – are now redundant, while the company will ask for further public aid to overcome the most difficult winter in the history of air transport. “We have decided that long haul is no longer part of our business plan,” explained Jacob Schram, managing director of Norwegian Air.
The Norwegian carrier – created in 1993 and with emanations in Sweden, Ireland, the United Kingdom and even Argentina – thus closes the era of intercontinental low cost flights in Europe, as anticipated by the Courier service last April. The one that, by copying the model offered by Ryanair and easyJet on short and medium routes, offered affordable fares to fly to large American cities, but transforming every onboard service typical of traditional carriers into extra – for a fee – such as seat selection, boarding of checked baggage, meals, even a blanket to keep you warm during ocean crossings. The stop occurs less than eight years later from the first low-cost intercontinental flight from Oslo to New York on May 30, 2013.
The coronavirus is only the last of the problems in chronological order. Norwegian Air’s accounts had already started to falter for some time, also due to the high debt (over 7 billion euros) to buy or rent the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner (for intercontinental flights) and 737 Max for short and medium, not to mention the engine problems experienced by some Dreamliners. Then came the 737 Max stop – which the airline also used for the connections between Ireland and the USA – after the two incidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia which forced the company to take to charter other planes. Finally the pandemic broke out: to date Norwegian Air uses 6 of its 138 aircraft for flights within Scandinavia.
The industrial plan
In the new business plan, the relaunch is based on 50 aircraft in 2021 – all single-aisle – and on connections that do not leave European borders. The fleet should grow to around 70 aircraft next year, the official note reads. In the letter that Guro H. Poulsen, executive vice president of personnel of Norwegian Air, sent to his employees – and of which the Corriere della Sera has come into possession – the closing date of long-range activities is also set, but with an error: January 15, 2021. Although in reality the message contains a typo, indicating the wrong year (2020). Local units in the US, France, the United Kingdom (including the London Gatwick base) and Italy are thus also closed.
In our country, Norwegian Air’s intercontinental flights were concentrated on Rome Fiumicino, a move that greatly disturbed Alitalia’s operations. On November 9, 2017, it took off from the capital the first long-haul low-cost direct connection from Italy to New York / Newark. Then the offer was expanded with flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco / Oakland and Boston. Three of these – New York, Los Angeles and Boston – in direct competition with the tricolor carrier.
I Boeing 787
Alitalia – or rather: to the new Italian airline led by Italia Transport Aereo – could end up taking part of the Boeing 787s used by Norwegian Air: most of the 35 aircraft used by the Norwegians were in fact hired and the 787s could end up renewing Alitalia’s long-haul fleet, now with lower leasing costs due to the coronavirus and oversupply of aircraft. “The long-haul segment has been volatile and in fact always at a loss for us since its launch in 2013,” he explained to Reuters Geir Karlsen, Norwegian Air’s chief of finance.
In September 2017, Ryanair’s number one Michael O’Leary predicted Norwegian Air’s bankruptcy for that winter. A forecast repeated also in subsequent years, confirming the stop period, and opposite to the previous plans of the main European low cost that he thought of reaching an agreement with the Norwegians to fuel their long-haul flights. This was not the case and everyone went their own way. The tensions between the two carriers worsened when Ryanair’s autumn image crisis led Norwegian Air to campaign among pilots to use them in its Boeing 737s.
The decision of Norwegian Air’s top management to stop intercontinental routes (which to date continue to travel at historic lows due to blocks between countries) thus comes after the failures – at times spectacular – of other intercontinental low cost airlines such asIcelandic Wow Air and Primera Air of Denmark. But not without first forcing traditional carriers to review their offer to counter the advance of new rivals. Almost all of them have thus introduced the “Light” fare in Economy (cost lower than the classic Economy, but also less services on board), while some have launched their own long-haul low-cost divisions such as Level (Iag group, British Airways holding, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus) or Joon (Air France).