Much has been made of the new ultra-cheap routes flown by Norwegian Air, a low-cost carrier that, starting next year, hopes to get you from the U.S. to Europe for a paltry $69.
In the meantime, the airline has been offering seriously discounted transatlantic flights, the kind of irresistible fares that will make you consider going to Scandinavia in the middle of February. (But it’s only $250! Round-trip!) Branding helps: With its all-red background, friendly lower-case font, and onboard pop soundtrack (surely Justin Timberlake can dull the edge of an eight-hour, back-of-the-plane flight), it’s not a huge leap to think of the Virgin Group as inspiration.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic line made its debut in 1984; the Norway-based carrier followed in 1993, and it has certainly captured Virgin's attention. “They’re someone we compete with aggressively,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger said in an interview, regarding the transatlantic routes. “We need to—and we do—take them very seriously.”
Also to Norwegian’s credit: Its long-haul planes are Boeing 787 Dreamliners, once considered unreliable but now emerging as the Great Carbon Fiber Hope of modern aircraft. The 291- and 344-seat jets are built using composite materials meant to improve fuel efficiency (and drop ticket prices) in addition to mitigating the effects of jet lag—think mood lighting, higher humidity in cabins, and lower pressurization.
To borrow one of Norwegian’s lines from the introductory video we watched on our seat-back screens: “It’s more jet. Less lag.”
The planes feel comfortable and new, with average legroom in economy (31-32 inches) and video on demand at your seat. You can always buy more comfort: In the spirit of the Spirit-style fee model, the Norwegian experience is customizable—everything from headphones ($3) to a travel blanket ($5) to coffee ($4 for a Nescafé) can be ordered a la carte from your screen; meals are also pre-ordered or bought mid-flight, though many travelers pack their own, even on transatlantic trips. Which is all well and good, if you know the rules, and are willing to play. Spirit’s I’ll-fly-my-way model has its loyalists; so does Norwegian’s.
How can they not, when passengers are paying half the normal airfare? But in Spirit’s case, the fee-for-all also inspires wrath—the kind that prompts headlines like “The Most Hated U.S. Airline Is Also the Most Profitable.”
In this year's American Customer Satisfaction Index travel report, Spirit Airlines had the lowest score, a 62 out of 100, of domestic airlines; budget carriers like Norwegian and Ryanair have been an easier sell internationally, but now that they plan to break into the U.S. market (with gusto), they need to account for American travelers' habits—and their vocal distaste for the rigid rules set by fee-style flying.
Can any flight look rosy when you're getting from New York City to Europe for under $500? Are those cost savings really worth it?
Just ask the pregnant woman—27 weeks along—sitting next to me at the back of economy; she’s been waiting for three hours to order some food on our recent Norwegian flight from London-Gatwick to New York-JFK. She's borne it patiently. Me, not so much. I’m hangry (“hungry-angry,” for those who are blessedly unfamiliar). While we wait for the a la carte “snack bar” to open, we watch as people who pre-ordered their meals (a trick I learned the hard way—too late) are served hot food, tea and coffee, cocktails.
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We can do nothing but stare down the flight attendants as our stomachs growl. A drink cart goes around offering soft drinks and juices, but no crackers, no pretzels. No booze to stave off the hunger. I feel like a plebe at the back of the banquet hall, watching the royals feast sloppily, greedily, on ham and roast duck while I gnaw on some day-old shortbread I've stashed in my purse.
When did I miss the chance to pre-order? I wonder. I booked tickets through a secondary agent, kiwi.com, so I go back and read the fine print on my confirmation—and discover, way down at the bottom of my three-page ticket reservation, the words: "Go to Manage My Booking to order a meal in advance." By not going through Norwegian.com—a common habit for travelers accustomed to checking Cheapflights and Momondo and Kiwi for the best deals possible—I had missed my chance to truly customize my experience before boarding. Which was the whole point of flying on this airline.
This isn't necessarily the way of all low-cost, long-haul carriers. I had also recently flown from Paris to New York on XL Airways, a French airline that offers seriously discounted flights without deferring to a fee model—which means a ticket still includes a blanket, hot meal, free movies, and all the water you can drink on a red-eye. You don't realize how blissful those pleasures are until they're withheld, or itemized.
Back on our Norwegian flight, the call attendant buttons start going off more aggressively. Credit cards tap on armrests. Knees bounce. Jaws grind. It’s a cacophony borne of abject hunger. I don’t envy the attendants, but I also don’t feel sympathy. We're not their priority, that much is clear. Basic customer service must be purchased as well.
Somehow, the pregnant woman next to me is still “hoping for the best”—not knowing what the hot meal will be, only that it’s hot. The menu offers few details, just generic photos touting sandwiches, some kind of vegetarian option, and a hot dish. I watch as people stare at the food menu like it’s a free movie, waiting, willing some Pringles to break free. When the snack bar does open up with a satisfying onscreen “pop,” the hot meals are already sold out, served to those who pre-ordered or bought as soon as we took off. That means we’ll take what we can get. The hot snack is a ham and cheese sandwich. Serviceable. The vegetarian option is a wrap of mixed grilled vegetables in BBQ sauce. No napkin. No water. Just a damp wrap in plastic, like I could have bought at the airport and eaten two hours ago at my seat along with everyone else.
As I manhandle my “Crunchy Vegan Veg Wrap,” headache starting to abate, I wonder what I'm paying for, ultimately. An increased opportunity to go abroad, on a Dreamliner? Definitely. An average-sized seat and a flight that arrived on time? I shouldn't get excited about that, but I do.
But uninspired customer service? That's partly why fee-model airlines inspire "hate" and their own Twitter feeds for complaints: "Never have I ever experienced such frustration, mediocrity, and terrible CSR," says Lucas Aguiar on @HateSpiritAir. Norwegian benefits from more modern planes and fewer complaints, yet it could stand to improve its communication on these transatlantic flights—when you're at the mercy of the staff, hangry, pregnant, or otherwise, for going on half a day.
Yes, it's great value to travel more than 3,000 miles for less than it costs to buy a nice suitcase, but if it's a Bolt Bus in the sky, it's something to endure rather than enjoy. And that $3.50 water can be hard to swallow.