Norwegian Air is a discount airline, but it offers among the most spacious premium economy cabins in the sky. This year the carrier will double down on the product it calls Premium, increasing the seat count in its forward cabin from 35 to 56 on 10 new-delivery Boeing Dreamliners while reducing legroom. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke with Norwegian's chief commercial officer, Thomas Ramdahl, to discuss that topic and other Norwegian goings-on that will impact the U.S. market.Q: You're an ultralow-cost carrier, so why are you doubling down on Premium?
A: Those aircraft will be allocated to destinations out of our long-haul London Gatwick base, where there is a big demand for Premium. That's Singapore, the U.S. and Buenos Aires. We will start these on U.S. flights by April.
Q: Your current Dreamliner cabins have 46 inches of space between rows in Premium. That's more or less industry leading for a premium economy product. But you're shrinking that space to 43 inches on the new deliveries. Though that will still be near the top of the industry, are you concerned customers will notice the difference and have a less pleasant experience?
A: No, I don't think there will be a big difference for the passengers. I haven't tried it myself yet, but I think between 46 inches and 43 inches you don't see a huge difference. The 46 inches is a great space, but you basically can't reach the seat in front of you anyhow. I think 38 inches is the industry standard.
Q: Why not go less than 43 inches then?
A: Because you are not able to get more seats in anyhow. Then you have to go down to 38 inches. And we're not going down to that. I think at 43 inches you will have a better product. And the goal for us is to try to be something between premium economy and a business class. If you look at the ticketing rules and the service we provide, it's trying to be more on the business-class level without having the lie-flat seat.
Q: Norwegian also plans to roll out WiFi on its Dreamliner fleet this year. When will that begin?
A: We will have WiFi on the new deliveries. That's first. But it will not be fully functional until the end of the year.
Q: You had 79% passenger growth to the U.S. year over year in the third quarter. How much U.S. growth do you expect this year?
A: You will see capacity almost double into the U.S. We introduced Rome in the fourth quarter. We introduced Madrid. We will be flying Amsterdam in the summer and Milan, as well. We are also adding three aircraft from Paris to the U.S., and we are increasing a lot as well from London.
Q: Are you concerned about the growth of low-cost, transatlantic competitors like Eurowings, Level, Primera and Wow Air? Could these carriers, combined with your fast growth, undercut the company?
A: We are trying to grow the markets where we see the potential. London is of course a huge market. When we increase capacity, we are getting more and more business passengers, as well. And when we do Rome, we are looking at where we don't have too much competition. Level is starting Paris at the end of the summer, where we already have a presence. So I'm not that afraid of the competition there.
Q: Norwegian Air Argentina just received an operating permit. When do you expect to launch? As I understand it, you'll be flying domestically within Argentina. Are any U.S.-Argentina routes in the offing?
A: You never know what the future will bring. But we hope that we will be up and flying by October or November this year and selling tickets by the beginning of June. And we will start by getting the domestic routes up and running and then look at European routes. What will happen in 2019 and 2020 is hard to say. As for the U.S., we will evaluate the possibility, but the first focus now is to get domestic up and running.
Q: Will you announce more U.S. destinations this year?
A: I think you will see some announcements on new destinations in the U.S. in 2018 for flights in 2019.