The low-cost airline Norwegian is planning further expansion of its long-haul flight network with London Gatwick as its major global base, and more routes to Latin America and Asia.
The carrier’s first direct flight from the UK to South America departs on Wednesday, with a 787 Dreamliner taking its maiden flight from Gatwick to Buenos Aires.
Norwegian’s chief executive, Bjørn Kjos, said the new route would be followed in June by the setting up of a subsidiary in Argentina, licensed to fly up to 152 routes around the continent. “We have big plans for Argentina. It’s going to be very interesting to see the onward connections we can offer from a Buenos Aires hub. South America is underserved.” He said Brazil, Chile and Uruguay could also soon be available on low-cost flights from Gatwick.
Kjos said: “The UK will be at the heart of our continued global expansion and we remain fully committed to the market.” The airline has more than 1,000 pilots and crew at Gatwick, where it will base its newest 787s.
The airline’s transatlantic expansion will get another lift from 2020 with the delivery of the first versions of the Airbus321neo, which are expected to fly from Gatwick to eastern US cities such as Philadelphia or Detroit. The single-aisle planes are the size of those typically used on European short-haul flights but with a longer range.
Investors and rivals have questioned the sustainability of Norwegian, which has rapidly expanded since its creation 15 years ago. It is now Europe’s third biggest low-cost airline. Kjos said: “When we started to build up the short-haul network we experienced the same. Last year we took in more than 600 pilots. That is not free.
“Yes, we could do it at a slower pace – but then you might not have the [airport] slots in two or three years. It’s tough when you do the expansion. After huge investment you won’t pay it off in a month.”
He said the modern fuel-efficient fleet of 787s, allied to the low-cost structures found at short-haul budget airlines, meant they could sell fares advertised from £260 one way: “I can’t understand how other airlines can do [South American routes] with older aircraft. You burn a hell of a lot of fuel.”
Reports in Norway say George Soros’s fund has attempted to short-sell the airline, while the Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, predicted that Norwegian and Monarch would not survive the winter . Monarch went into administration in October. Kjos said O’Leary’s comments may have been prompted by Norwegian recruiting between 200 and 300 pilots from Ryanair, which led to a winter crisis for the Irish airline instead. “He’s been saying that since 2002,” Kjos said. “It means nothing.”
Kjos said the airline was continuing to attract more business passengers and was increasing the size of its premium cabin from 35 to 56 seats on its 787s.
Meanwhile, Norwegian is considering further expansion to the far east and south Asia. Kjos said: “We could fly millions of Asian passengers to London – Tokyo, Beijing, there’s no exception, everyone wants to fly to London.”
However, routes are being held up by the refusal of Russia to grant overflying flights in its trans-Siberian air corridor, despite UK government backing for Norwegian under a bilateral agreement.