Sunday 22 October 2017

Norwegian thinking bigger amid cold war with Ryanair

Norwegian boss Bjorn Kjos and his Ryanair counterpart, Michael O’Leary, in happier times
Norwegian boss Bjorn Kjos and his Ryanair counterpart, Michael O’Leary, in happier times
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

One of the interesting - and unreported - subplots from the recent Ryanair horror show is the cold war between Michael O'Leary's carrier and Norwegian, Europe's third-biggest low-cost operation.

And it's certainly a recent phenomenon. Early last month Ryanair chief commercial officer David O'Brien told this column that the airline was confident of interlining with Norwegian, feeding short-haul passengers to its transatlantic services. The only issue in the way was getting their respective IT systems to link together.

But that plan nosedived in spectacular fashion, after O'Leary announced at a recent press conference in Dublin over flight cancellations that "given our concerns over Norwegian's financial ability ... we are focusing now our discussions with Air Europa and Aer Lingus" for interlining.

That attack came just days after a deal was struck between EasyJet and Norwegian that would see the former selling the latter's services on one platform, a deal that surely ruffled feathers at Ryanair HQ.

Despite its big marketing campaigns and strong word-of-mouth here given its transatlantic launches, Norwegian does suffer in one respect - its gaping lack of communications at times.

A call to London to get its side on O'Leary's attack brought the standard press office line: "As we have said before, these comments have no root in reality. Norwegian has been profitable for the last 10 years, with a strong liquidity, together with owning a substantial share of Bank Norwegian which has a market value of over £1.6bn." All a bit tame.

So it was good to see a human face from the airline on these shores, as Dominic Tucker, head of UK and Ireland sales at Norwegian Airlines, addressed a travel leaders conference organised by travel commerce platform Travelport.

Tucker, formerly a British Airways executive, revealed that the Scandinavian airline wasn't impressed by O'Leary's jibes. "Norwegians are normally very passive people but they were up in arms," he said. "His comments hadn't got any foundation," he said, adding that since 80pc of its bookings are online, that's cash in the bank from the get-go. Norwegian top brass were ready to embark on a war of words with the Irish airline, but decided to take the line of "leave it, he'll trip himself up at some time". Despite its positioning as a low-cost carrier over the Atlantic, Tucker told the Sunday Independent that Norwegian is "popular with SMEs" and also with bigger companies looking or more bang for their travelling buck. And he put his hands up saying "we missed that boat" by offering wifi for free instead of charging for it.

He says the airline will consider introducing the larger Boeing 787 Dreamliner on its Ireland-US routes, and could envisage that same aircraft being deployed as a direct service from Dublin to the likes of Cape Town when US demand is lighter. Interestingly, in a week in which United Airlines announced it's to cease operations from Shannon to Chicago next winter, Tucker said "demand on the Shannon to Stewart [in New York] route is outstripping Dublin to Stewart proportionally".

* Aer Lingus' decision to commence flights next year from Dublin to Philadelphia will pay dividends for the business traveller. Apart from the service itself, the airline's chief operating officer, Mike Rutter, said the introduction of eight new Airbus 321 aircraft in 2019 and 2020 will be game changers for travellers up front. They're more economical, and more suited to short-haul hops (Paris, etc) as well as long haul over the Atlantic.

Business travellers coming in from the US will be able to continue on in the same class and same aircraft type to key European destinations, marking a big play for the business market on the long-haul side. The airline is also working on a 'Aer Space' product, a source told this column. This will offer a closed-off seat between passengers up front, opening up space to use your laptop. The airline is also looking at bundling key business products, such as fast-track and priority boarding.

* Travelling professionals - or their travel planners - tend to be careful with the purse strings, and just one in five opting for 'high end, luxury' accommodation when away. But that figure rises for business trips carried out by banking and finance professionals (almost one in four plump for high-end hotels) and even higher for management consultants (only the best will do for 26pc for them).

Other figures revealed in a survey of professionals by booking.com for business shows that the top desires are a comfy bed and a strong wifi signal (52pc each), followed by a good breakfast (38pc) and free transportation or shuttle service (27pc). Not surprisingly, accommodation choice is also strongly driven by location, with convenient access to meetings (47pc) and placement in the city centre (29pc) named as top priorities.

Sunday Indo Business

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