By Ron Bernthal
The United Nations has listed Norway as the number one country on the organization’s 2015 Human Development Report. Combining life expectancy, education and income per capita, Norway ranks first in the world for the 12th straight year. Add in personal freedom and health and Norway sits at the top of the 2015 Prosperity Index for the seventh year in a row.
Norwegian started operations in 1993, flying domestically along Norway’s rugged west coast and, coincidently, was listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange in 2003, just as Norway began to occupy its top place on the UN list of best countries. Privately owned Norwegian is quite reflective of its country of origin. The mostly Norwegian-born flight crew are friendly and helpful. The Nordic-influenced food served on Norwegian is as fresh and delicious as Oslo’s top restaurants. The carrier’s fleet of new, Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft helped Norwegian rank as the most fuel efficient airliner in the aerospace industry for 2015, Norway is one of the “greenest” countries in the world in terms of sustainability, and Norwegian’s tail fins are painted with pictures of Nordic heroes (including Swedes, Danes, and Finns) who “have pushed the boundaries, challenged established norms and inspired others,” much like the Norwegian explorers, athletes, writers and artists Roald Amundsen, Sonja Henie, Thor Heyerdahl, Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch and Gustav Vigeland.
A recent flight in Premium class on Norwegian’s non-stop service from New York (JFK) to Oslo (OSL) began with a light buffet dinner in the Korean Air lounge, where several international carriers lease space for their departing business class passengers. The lounge, close to Norwegian’s Gate 4 at JFK’s Terminal 1, is quite large with several food stations, bar service, complimentary WiFi, computers and printers, and private shower rooms.
After tracking boarding times on the lounge departure screen I made my way to the gate and boarded the aircraft at 9:20 pm through Norwegian’s dedicated Premium lane. The 32 grey, leather Premium seats with the red Norwegian head cloths were arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration and, immediately after stowing my gear in the extra-large overheads I was offered a choice of Champagne, juice or water. The seats on the aircraft looked and felt brand new, the average age of a Norwegian aircraft is only four years, the Dreamliner windows were devoid of the traditional pull-down shades, little buttons under each window control shading, and Norwegian’s ambient cabin lighting, called Sky Interior, is a relaxing blue and purple, similar to Virgin America’s phased mood lighting. Even the bathrooms on the aircraft had a calming atmosphere, with blue ambient lighting, little colored lights on the sink faucet, and an extremely quiet toilet flush.
The onboard dinner that evening was cold pasta and olive salad, baked chicken with spinach and eggplant, dinner rolls and chocolate cake, along with a selection of wines and spirits. New York strip steak, curry prawns and a vegetarian dish was offered on the return flight. Before landing a breakfast was served consisting of a warm bagel with cream cheese and smoked Norwegian salmon, fruit and juice and coffee. Other flights may include fruit salad, natural yoghurt, honey, muesli and pain au chocolat. All meals are served in efficient boxes made of re-cycled cardboard, with plates and cutlery inside. It may have been initially disappointing not have a starched table cloth and assorted chinaware placed over the tray table, but with the low prices Norwegian charges for its Premium fares, it was understandable that there had to be some sacrifice. The cuisine itself was as nicely prepared and tasty as most other airline business class meals. Economy fares are so low that passengers are more than willing to pay extra for food, pre-ordered before boarding.
The entertainment system in Norwegian’s long-haul Premium class is viewed on a large touch-screen that folds out of the armrest (live TV and free WiFi is offered on flights within Europe), and with a 46” pitch, 19” width seat, and an almost full recline, it was quite easy to get a few hours’ sleep during the night. The thick, blue duvet provided by the flight attendant didn’t hurt either. Norwegian’s on-time performance is usually in the high 80%’s (it was recently eight best out of 50 airlines), on my flight to Oslo wheels were up at 10:25 pm, 25 minutes behind schedule due to departure traffic at JFK, but arrival at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport was at 10:55 am the next morning, five minutes early.
In 2015 Norwegian was voted Europe’s Leading Low-Cost Airline at the World Travel Awards, and Best European Low-Cost Airline from Skytrax World Airline Awards. In Economy class the price difference between Norwegian and other carriers flying the same route is several hundred dollars. For Premium business class the difference is extraordinary, anywhere from $600 to $4,500 round-trip compared to other airlines flying the same route. And, of course, on most days Norwegian is the only carrier flying non-stop from several American cities (New York, Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Oakland, Los Angeles) to Bergen on Norway’s West Coast, and/or Oslo, Norway’s capital and largest city. The relatively low cost Premium class fares, combined with its high degree of comfort, has not gone unnoticed by budget-conscious corporate travel managers. “We started out as a low-cost carrier for tourists, but 15% of our passengers are now business travelers, and the number is growing,” said Bjorn Kjos, founding co-partner and current CEO of Norwegian.
Norwegian will soon offer 34 non-stop routes from the U.S. (including Las Vegas, San Juan, Baltimore/Washington) to Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, and to the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.