Flying Norwegian

24Apr18

TL;DR

Norwegian seems pretty decent as a leisure traveller, but I won’t be choosing them for business travel again unless things change substantially.

Background

Norwegian have been flying long haul from Gatwick (my nearest airport) for a little while now. At first it was to New York, and more recently they’ve added routes to the Bay Area (Oakland) and Florida (Orlando and Ft Lauderdale). I started hearing good reports about their fleet of 787s, especially the premium economy offering, which was described to me as being ‘like business class was on American carriers a decade ago’.

Booking Blockers

Based on the good reports I chose Norwegian for the biennial family trip to Florida for some theme park fun.

Booking was a bit of an adventure. When I went to book the flights I could get outbound (before the end of March) but not return. As the only option for outbound was flexible I thought at worst I could always cancel if I couldn’t figure out return flights that worked. A few weeks later the block of tickets from April onwards was released, and I was able to complete my booking.

Y to JFK

Before making the trip with the family I got to fly solo on a business trip to New York. I thought leaving from Gatwick and being able to get a day flight home would be good, but I was wrong on both counts.

The outbound flight wasn’t too bad; though the trip got off to a poor start on two counts:

  1. No online check in, making me fear the dreaded SSSS, though I was able to check in at a machine on arrival at Gatwick and proceed with my carry on straight through security.
  2. My Priority Pass being turned away at the No.1 Lounge in Gatwick South Terminal (again).

We were a little late getting away, but made up some of the time en route. Norwegian’s 787 seats are a LOT more comfortable than Virgin’s (for which I’ve bought an inflatable cushion) and legroom is OK even in regular economy. My ticket included food, where if I recall correctly the options literally were ‘chicken or beef’; though the beef was pretty nice.

I missed out on a £250 upgrade that was offered at the departure gate, partly because the sale process wasn’t well managed. It was also entirely unclear to me how I might have paid for an upgrade (or even a seat change) after my ticket had been bought through my work’s travel agent.

Arrivals at JFK T1 was fine, though once out of the airport I was quickly reminded of why I prefer flying into EWR when I visit New York.

Grrr back to Gatwick

My return trip was a catalogue of awful:

  • Once again no online/app check in
  • Go to machine at airport, then another, then another – machine #3 actually works and gives me a boarding pass
  • Security won’t let me through, apparently my boarding pass needs to be stamped
  • Stand in line for check in
  • Yes, I did pack my own things, No, I’ve not left my bags unattended
  • Check in chap tells me that flight is delayed 3hrs
  • Check in chap insists on weighing my bag, tells me I’m 4kg over the 10kg carry on allowance for economy, so I have to check it. There’s no fee for the bag, but my late arrival has just been made even later, and I have to faff around splitting the contents of my bag into what I’ll actually carry on and what’s going in the hold (lucky that I had a bag inside the bag)
  • No TSA Pre – so it’s back to the slow line, and shoes off and all that malarky
  • Both Priority Pass lounges in T1 are closed – one for refurbishment and the other because of standard time limits (that mean it would never be useful for Norwegian’s day flight)

As I waited to board there were clearly people with roller luggage (and often another bag) that blew past the 10kg restriction. At least when we did arrive at Gatwick they were quick with the bags.

My plan had been to get home before midnight, the reality was that I got home just before 4am – so the night in my own bed rationale for taking a day flight was utterly undermined.

Did I mention that Norwegian don’t have WiFi?

Premium to Orlando

A few weeks later I was back at Gatwick with the family for our holiday flight.

It didn’t matter that we couldn’t check in online, as we had three bags to take with us. The premium check in line was very friendly, quick and efficient, though they did insist on weighing all of our hand luggage, which easily came below the 15kg limit for that cabin.

It didn’t matter that Priority Pass never works at No.1 Lounge Gatwick South (unless you play along with their scam of paying a £5 pre booking fee), as lounge access was included.

The onboard experience was pretty much as it had been described to me – big comfortable seats with tons of legroom, and despite a slightly late departure (waiting for freight – again) it’s easily the best flight I’ve ever taken to Florida.

Arrivals at MCO was less awful than it used to be, and the immigration delay was just fractionally shorter than the luggage delay (there was no point in me using Global Entry when with the family, especially given our rental car pickup was off site).

Delayed back to Gatwick

The return trip wasn’t quite so good.

Check in was fine.

There is no accounting for the awfulness of TSA at MCO (and even if I’d had a Pre stamp I wouldn’t have abandoned the family).

No lounge access on the tickets this time, but Priority Pass worked at The Club MCO – in fact we were pretty much the only people in there… because it was ridiculously early.

When I booked the flights the return trip was a little after 10pm, a bit on the late side, but probably OK for getting some sleep. Before we took the flights the slot changed to 4.10pm, arriving 5.25am, which is too early to sleep on the way out, and too early to arrive.

We left the lounge to board for an on time departure as that’s what the screens were showing – I should have checked the inbound flight on my phone, as we spent an extra hour sat at the gate that could have been more comfortably spent in the lounge. Norwegian knew they were woefully late on the inbound flight, but apparently just didn’t bother to tell anybody at MCO that this would cause a delayed departure.

Whilst waiting at the gate I looked at Norwegian’s punctuality record for the preceding flights that week – they’d all been delayed – some pretty horrendously.

Would I fly with them again?

As a leisure traveller yes – if you have family and hold luggage then you’re in the slow lane anyway, and there’s nothing that Norwegian will do to make things worse. The premium cabin is very nice, and the extra for it isn’t too steep, but the main cabin is perfectly adequate and in some ways a cut above lots of the mainstream economy offerings.

As a business traveller definitely not – their carry on policy might keep things sane in the overheads, but it’s actively hostile to people who pack a single bag for the week. No online checkin, no TSA Pre, no WiFi – these things all cost time or hurt productivity; as does working from terminals where Priority Pass doesn’t work. Norwegian might expect business travellers to pay for Premium, and I wish my company’s policy allowed for that, but that would only (just) resolve the carry on issue – everything else would still be a mess of petty inconvenience.

Will Norwegian even be around next year or the year after?

They’ve been losing a ton of money, and the vultures are circling.

I kind of hope that they do pull out of their financial nosedive and make the model work, and invest in dealing with some of the issues noted above. The alternative of IAG taking over would I’m pretty sure result in a worst of both worlds outcome – I wouldn’t expect service to improve at all, but prices would surely go up. Let’s not forget that BA don’t have TSA Pre, which must be a massive source of frustration for their frequent flyers on US routes[1].

Conclusion

If Norwegian are still around in 2020 they’ll likely be my first pick for the next family trip to Florida, but until they change a few things I’ll be looking wistfully at Gatwick as my taxi speeds past to deliver me to Virgin or United at Heathrow.

Note

[1] My working theory on this is that BA don’t wan’t to pay for an extra Pre line at JFK where they have their own terminal, and so they’re willing to compromise the experience of flying with them from every other airport in the US.



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