Small markets, narrow planes for Norwegian Air's new U.S. routes

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Norwegian Air will fly Boeing 737 Max jets from Providence, Hartford and Orange County, N.Y.
Norwegian Air will fly Boeing 737 Max jets from Providence, Hartford and Orange County, N.Y.

Norwegian Air International's plan to begin flying 12 transatlantic routes out of three secondary markets in the Northeast U.S. this summer could be a harbinger for the industry, as narrowbody aircraft offering enhanced fuel efficiency make their way into the market.

"The more efficient single-aisles could serve as a catalyst for transatlantic fragmentation," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst with the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group.

In late February, Norwegian announced that it will launch its ultralow-cost flights to the U.K. and Ireland from T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I.; Stewart Airport in New Windsor, N.Y., (about 60 miles north of Manhattan); and Bradley Airport north of Hartford, Conn.

This past Tuesday, the carrier announced seasonal summer routes to Providence and Stewart from Bergen, Norway.

That means that Providence will be able to offer Norwegian flights to Belfast; Cork, Dublin and Shannon, Ireland; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Bergen. Stewart will offer service to Belfast, Dublin, Shannon, Edinburgh and Bergen. Norwegian will offer service between Edinburgh and Hartford.

All the services will begin in June or early July as Norwegian becomes the first airline to take delivery of Boeing 737 Max jets.

Winning such routes is no small feat for small and midsize airports. Stewart, for example, currently offers no international flights. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which runs the airport, said that Stewart welcomed 275,000 passengers in 2016 but expects that the Norwegian flights will boost the airport to 700,000 passengers by 2018.

On the day of the announcement, officials at those destinations spoke in gushing terms about Norwegian's entry.

"This is a wonderful, transformational thing," Orange County, N.Y., executive Steven Neuhaus said at a news conference.

In Hartford, where Norwegian's Edinburgh route will follow the 2016 launch of the airport's only other European service, an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, the news was also seen as cause for celebration.

"It's very significant for us," Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, said in an interview.

The service will benefit the business community, he said, and inexpensive fares will be especially useful for the large community of college students in the Hartford area. Indeed, to entice Norwegian, the airport authority agreed to provide the carrier with $500,000 in marketing assistance as well as two years of fee waivers, which Dillon said are estimated to amount to $438,000.

Stewart and T.F. Green also provided Norwegian with an incentive package.

Norwegian Air chief commercial officer Thomas Ramdahl said that those inducements as well as slot restrictions at New York JFK and Newark airports were factors in Norwegian's decision to branch out to tertiary Northeast markets.

But he also said the coming of the 737 Max played an important role in the decision. The Max will fly approximately 3,800 miles, or about 450 miles farther than Norwegian's current 737-800 aircraft, Ramdahl said, and Norwegian expects a fuel savings of 5% to 6%.

Norwegian will fly the Max with a configuration of 189 seats, compared with the 291 seats it has on its long-haul, widebody fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The airline said it believes that will make smaller markets like Hartford, Providence and even New York's Hudson Valley viable for European routes.

But Ramdahl said the carrier's true game-changer as far as serving smaller markets would come in 2019, when it takes delivery of its first Airbus A321LR, which he expects will fly as many as 575 miles farther than the Max, allowing for fuel-efficient narrowbody service from the East Coast farther into continental Europe.

"As soon as we have the 321, you will see Norwegian moving into smaller airports and to smaller markets," Ramdahl said, offering Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., as possibilities.

Narrowbody, transatlantic flights aren't new. A number of airlines, including the major U.S. carriers, have long used the Boeing 757 for some Europe-North America routes. That aircraft can fly approximately 4,000 miles, Aboulafia said. However, Boeing delivered its last 757 in 2005, and the intervening dozen years have seen many advancements in aircraft engines and in aerodynamic design efficiency.

"They are old," Ramdahl said.

Aviation analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co. said the trend in the airline industry has long been toward increased fragmentation.

Norwegian's use of the Max for service to Europe from secondary Northeastern U.S. markets could serve as a test case.

"If this works for them, you can expect to see lots more secondary city service," Mann said.

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