Norwegian takes the lead as new generation narrowbodies open up thin long-haul city pairs

Until very recently, the concept of long haul, low cost international service with narrowbody aircraft was merely an intriguing thought as the specifications of new generation aircraft in development by Airbus and Boeing began to materialise.

Ryanair had for years toyed on and off with the idea of Transatlantic low cost flights, but never solidified those ambitions; meanwhile airlines focused solely on the premium market in the North Atlantic experienced a short shelf life. The status quo persisted, with joint ventures created by the three large global network alliances accounting for more than 80% of seat capacity on North Atlantic routes.

Now in 2017, Norwegian Air International’s (NAI) bold plans to inject true low cost competition into the Transatlantic market have become a reality. The company has used classic LCC strategies – operating from secondary airports and offering markedly lower fares – to create disruption in one of the most mature air travel markets initially using Boeing 737 MAX-8 narrowbodies.

The range of Airbus A321neoLR jets will create even more route opportunities for Norwegian, who clawed its way into the Transatlantic market despite a three year struggle to gain approval for new US service. Remarkably, Norwegian already operates more Transatlantic routes than any other airline (although not more seats).

While Norwegian’s long haul, narrowbody business model is built on passenger stimulation, larger rivals including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are not resting on their laurels. Those airlines plan to use their new raft of tiered pricing to remain relevant in the low cost, long haul passenger segment.

For now, new low cost upstarts operating in the Transatlantic are focused solely on leisure customers. But if US carrier jetBlue Airways ultimately decides to deploy its premium Mint product onto Transatlantic routes when it receives A321neoLR equipment in the future, the competitive stakes for full service airlines in the Transatlantic could shift dramatically.

While Norwegian is initially flying across the Atlantic with its 737MAX-8s (initially using its 737-800s with a small playload penalty while it awaits their slightly delayed delivery), it is the A321neoLR that many see as making the biggest impact on the industry. The 97 tonne MTOW option for the A321neo will have the longest range of any single aisle airliner at 4,000 nautical miles, making it ideally suited to Transatlantic routes and will allow airlines to tap into new long haul markets which were not previously accessible with current single aisle aircraft.

READ MORE… Long haul narrowbody operations are coming – with important implications for route networks