Wings of Desire

05.07.15 9:20 AM ET

Why Is Norwegian Air Charming Transatlantic Flyers?

American-based airlines may be determined to stop it, but Norwegian Air is emerging as a serious transatlantic flight provider.

NEARLY 50 years ago Tom Wolfe chronicled The Mid-Atlantic Man in an article subsequently published in his 1960s anthology The Pump House Gang.

The Mid-Atlantic Man was a posh Brit business type so in love with the USA that he was “an Englishman who has reversed the usual process…and gone American.”  

The Mid-Atlantic Man is more prevalent than ever (current A-List examples include Simon Cowell and Guy Ritchie).

A less famous and successful example of the species was talking with me recently in Premium Economy class on a flight from New York to London on Norwegian Air International, the budget Scandinavian airline.

This Mid-Atlantic Man—who asked that his name not be divulged—works in real estate, and not showbiz or advertising, and, in his fifth decade at least, is older than Wolfe’s pioneers.

When times weren’t so hard, he tells me he flew Concorde transatlantic, twice winding up on the same supersonic jet as Sarah Ferguson. Now he’s self-employed and pays his own way.

Mid-Atlantic Man flies Norwegian, rather than Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, or American Airlines. “It’s cheaper, so there’s no alternative,” he says.

He estimates he saved $1,000 flying Premium Economy on Norwegian by not opting for British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.

This budget airline, the third-largest low-cost carrier in Europe behind Ryanair and EasyJet, has recently become the most controversial long-haul airline, principally as a result of its attempt to crack the U.S. market.

Norwegian is locked in a protracted ongoing battle with the U.S. Department of Transport to expand its transatlantic service.

Norwegian’s first low-cost, long-haul flight from London to New York launched in July 2014. It also flies to Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Orlando.  

Operating a 787 Dreamliner plane, as opposed to the transatlantic aviation staple Boeing 747 carrier, Norwegian seeks in particular to revolutionize the air link between London and New York, the world’s busiest intercontinental route.

What stands in the way is the determination of U.S. airlines who have appealed to Congress to protect their business model.  

Norwegian flies six times a week across the Atlantic, but it wants to increase its flights from Europe to America (as well as fly to South America and South Africa).

To that end, it has applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a foreign air carrier permit application that would give it increased traffic rights.  

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More than 500 days later it is still waiting for the government to approve its entry into new routes in the face of furious opposition from U.S. airlines that argue ratification would destroy the domestic aviation industry.

The chief weapon in Norwegian Airlines’ armory is price. The price differential diminishes during high season but, for example, flying Norwegian on May 16 one-way from New York to London is over $1,000 cheaper than flying British Airways or Virgin Atlantic. (While Norwegian’s main event—the journey—can be much less expensive than the competition, the concessionary stands add up. You pay for checked-in baggage, meals,  and your seat reservation, though a combined fee of $55 gets you all three. Water is $4 and a blanket costs $5.)

The dispute is a barometer of whether foreign long-haul, low-cost airlines will ever be able to thrive in the U.S.

Edward Shelswell-White, a principal at aviation consultancy LexVolo and former director at Southwest Airlines, drily notes, “Norwegian deserves kudos for uniting unions and management, a difficult thing to do in the airline industry. You have a non-U.S. company looking to disrupt the marketplace and the people who feel threatened by that are U.S. citizens and U.S. companies, so it’s not surprising that Congress is responsive to that.”

Though vastly different in demeanor and operations to the Dirty Digger, Norwegian’s CEO and founder Bjorn Kjos is the closest thing the airline industry has to Rupert Murdoch, in view of his desire to take on the unions and engineer a price war.

U.S. airline unions have particularly objected to Norwegian setting up a subsidiary in Ireland to operate their long-haul services and take advantage of the Open Skies Agreeement. (Ireland, unlike Norway, is an EU member and therefore allows Norwegian to take advantage of the U.S.-EU treaty that extends privileges between the respective regions’ airlines.)

Accusations have also been made that Norwegian employs cheap labor out of Bangkok, prepared to work at below-market rates, although the staff on my flight were American.

Norwegian has hit back against the allegation that it is obtaining unfair competitive advantage and insists its U.S. employees follow U.S. labor laws.

Last February, 300 U.S.-based flight attendants delivered letters to the Obama administration protesting against the approval delay to their foreign air carrier permit application. (It also accounts for why the technical name of the aircraft flying you 3,460 miles between New York and London is Norwegian Air Shuttle).

Norwegian’s long-haul service has been plagued by gripes about delays; passengers on a New Year’s Eve flight from New York to Oslo had to see 2014 in staying in hotels near JFK airport after passengers noticed a fuel leak from one of the planes.  

My transatlantic flight had a 45-minute delay but going back we landed in New York on time, and my flights on Norwegian were far from the sweatshop-in-the-sky experience that some of its opponents like to portray.

In fact, a few aspects were better than average. The electro-chromatic dimming windows were bigger than on a standard Boeing 747, with a button switching them from transparent to dark, the ambient lighting effect making a refreshing change to the humdrum shades.

Norwegian boasts that its Dreamliner has higher cabin air pressure and indeed my ears did not pop on either flight. The food was adequate; Mid-Atlantic man informed me the meals in Norwegian’s Premium Economy were inferior to that found in most of the competition’s business classes.  

Norwegian’s Android interactive entertainment system is user-friendly but won’t be eclipsing Virgin Atlantic anytime soon. Service was enthusiastic, though not always as efficient as it could have been.

Norwegian likes to extol its greater fuel efficiency and fresher air temperature compared with other airlines’. But what it really has going for it is a peculiar, random charm you won’t find on any other airline.

A serendipitous air was all around me during the flight. Upon arrival in London, a passenger announcement went out reminding a passenger to collect a “wedding dress and black tube” they had left in the baggage compartment.  

The cover story on the in-flight magazine on my flight centered around old barfly dudes in Miami Beach. Or how about the fact that Harald Brattbakk, one of Norwegian’s pilots, used to be a leading soccer star for his country in a previous professional life?

While checking in at Gatwick I noticed a familiar-looking snowy-haired gentleman observing passengers checking in. While on the company’s website a few days later, I realized it was Bjorn Kjos, Norwegian’s founder.

Can you imagine Richard Branson scrutinizing his flyers without drawing attention to himself? Neither can I. Branson wrote his bestselling business-school-favorite memoir, Losing my Virginity; Kjos penned a Cold War spy novel, The Murmansk Affair.

Random charm will only get the airline so far though. The Norwegian Air International experience is not stellar, but might well be good enough to avoid the airline meeting the same fate as those transatlantic airline corpses Laker Airways and Silverjet.

“Norwegian has a combination of low cost and customer value proposition that should enable them to succeed,” says consultant Shelswell-White—although the kind of person that views it as a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions if they don’t get their upgrade and whose hero is George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Jason Reitman’s 2009 film Up in the Air should steer clear of Norwegian.

Here’s one more thing Norwegian has in its favor. Not once did I spot another Wolfe anthropological creation, the Master of the Universe, the nickname he gave to fictional New York banker superstar Sherman McCoy in his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Whatever you pay for your flight to Europe, most New Yorkers will testify that securing freedom from the humbled Master of the Universe has become an expensive privilege.

As for myself and Mid-Atlantic Man’s plane, it was delayed on the runway in New York for 45 minutes, and as a result, half an hour before we landed at Gatwick an in-flight passenger announcement invited people seated in Economy, who were going to catch a connecting Norwegian flight from Gatwick to Barcelona, to join the Premium Economy class.

“I hate it when this happens,” Mid-Atlantic Man said, his reflex snobbery seemingly rise to the surface, almost as though it served as a hat-tip to our impending arrival in class-fixated Britain. “But what are you going to do?”

What Mid-Atlantic Man is going to do is keep flying Norwegian.