Norwegian secures access to London Heathrow, but will it actually utilise its three weekly return slots?

European budget carrier Norwegian has openly stated that after years of rapid growth that it is firmly now focused on profitability. A recent network review has highlighted just that with the cancellation of a number of its routes, most recently the closure of its long-haul activities out of Denmark and Sweden from the start of the summer 2020 schedules.

But, while there have been many tweaks to its long-haul operation out of London Gatwick, its largest long-haul departure point, a ramping up of frequencies to key destinations such as Austin, Denver, San Francisco and Tampa in summer 2020 shows that the UK airport will remain a key point in its future network.

However, this week it has emerged that Norwegian could also be introducing flights from another London airport. No, not Stansted or Luton, but Heathrow. Yes, you read that correctly. The budget airline has managed to secure six weekly slots at the UK hub for the summer schedule between 29-Mar-2020 and 24-Oct-2020.

Right now it is unclear what Norwegian plans to do with the slots, the allocation of which was revealed by slot coordinator Airport Coordination Limited (ACL) on its initial report for the summer 2020 season, published on 01-Dec-2019. The airline had applied for 14 slots, enough to operate a daily return flight, but has secured just six, for a three times weekly operation.

Whether that will be sustainable to deliver a profitable operation at a high cost airport given the additional new contracts for ground handling, catering etc that Norwegian will need to introduce, is not clear. However, having now secured access to London Heathrow, Norwegian now has the pressure to find a way to utilise or safeguard these lucrative resources.

The airline claims to have a “strong track record of disrupting incumbent carriers and alliances by offering low fares and award winning service on specific routes and destinations that were previously operated as monopolies”. While, confirming the slot award, it simply says: “We continuously adjust our network in response to demand and we will announce any further changes as and when it is appropriate to do so.”

The pressure for Norwegian is that with only a three times weekly schedule it will find it hard to fulfil that role of disrupting incumbent carriers and alliances at Heathrow. This is only a provisional ruling from ACL, but Norwegian will quite rightly find it hard to not take advantage of the rare offer.  After all, airlines such as Tunisair and Turkmenistan Airlines will be having their own slot allocations reduced for the summer 2020 schedule, according to the ACL filing.

Similarly, JetBlue Airways had requested 70 weekly slots for 35 return flights, around five per day and was not awarded any, albeit it is not expected to launch trans-Atlantic flights until 2021. This ruling will perhaps influence its choice of London gateway for these flights.

Or will it? Norwegian and JetBlue recently proposed a new interline agreement with Norwegian. The new partnership begs an obvious question – will they deepen their commitment to a codeshare once JetBlue makes its trans-Atlantic debut. Norwegian’s access to Heathrow would certainly sweeten such a move for the US carrier.

Norwegian’s plans will ultimately be driven by its motivation for requesting these Heathrow slots. The big question is did it genuinely have plans to launch flights from Heathrow, or simply made the request on the unlikely event it would receive some. If you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win the lottery, but in Norwegian’s case it has neither won or lost, but been left with a massive dilemma.

CHART – London Gatwick airport is currently the second largest network point for the Norwegian Group for international servicesSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 02-Dec-2019) 

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