Norwegian Brings Its 737 to the US… From the Caribbean, Not Europe

Say the word “Norwegian” in airline industry circles in the US and the first thing that comes to mind is a contentious political battle. Norwegian has been trying to gain approval to fly to the US under a new Irish subsidiary, and the US government has refused to take action. But the last thing that probably comes to mind when you hear the word “Norwegian” is a sunny Caribbean beach. Yet that is exactly what Norwegian is announcing today.

The airline is going to begin flying 737s to the Caribbean from the East Coast. Is this going to work? Unclear, though also unlikely. But it’s an interesting effort, and of course, it’s bound to piss some US-based airlines off. I’m anticipating something along these lines:

Norwegian Comes to the Caribbean

The reality is that this particular set of flights isn’t a threat to anyone. But of course, it’s always that “slippery slope” thinking that will likely get other airlines up in arms.

Beginning December 3, Norwegian will fly from New York/JFK, Boston, and Baltimore to both Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of those places? That’s because while widebodies bring the French over all the time, Americans don’t really go to these islands. Just look at the air service that exists today.

Excluding a tiny prop or two a day from San Juan, the only US service to either island is from Miami. American flies once or twice a week from Miami to Guadeloupe. It also flies anywhere from 2 to 6 times weekly on an Eagle Embraer 175 to Martinique. Other than that, the only flight is, believe it or not, an Air France A320 that goes on a milk run to Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana.

With such a dearth of service, has Norwegian found some untapped opportunity? Eh, I wouldn’t bet on it. I spoke with Chief Commercial Officer Thomas Ramdahl, and he said that low fares and of course, some help from the tourism boards, will make these flights work. But it seems like quite the stretch.

Further, Norwegian isn’t going to get any help from other airlines. You might think that an interline agreement with JetBlue would be ideal in Boston and New York, but Thomas explained that Norwegian doesn’t expect to have the technology to partner with anyone until late next year. (Not that JetBlue would likely want this partnership.) I just have trouble seeing how these routes are going to work. That’s why I can only assume this is more about what the airline is allowed to fly versus what it might want to fly.

As you probably guessed from the fact that Air France flies an A320 to these islands, they are French territories. And more specifically they are considered overseas departments of France. That means they are, for all intents and purposes, French, so the open skies agreements between the European Union and the US apply here. Norwegian is taking advantage of that.

The airline is actually basing the 737-800s in the Caribbean. There are three aircraft coming over with two based on Guadeloupe and one on Martinique. Each morning, one airplane will leave each island for the US and then come right back on the following schedule:

Norwegian Caribbean Schedule

What does the third airplane do? It sits there as a spare. Yes, this is horribly inefficient. Each flying airplane will only be in the air about 9 hours a day (4.5 hours each way). But since only 2 of the 3 airplanes will actually be flying, that means there will be an average utilization of 6 hours a day. Brutal.

This doesn’t take into account the hassle of bringing over pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics from its European operation to run these flights. If you’ve been following the drama about Norwegian trying to get a new certificate in Ireland for its long haul flights and hiring people from far-flung countries, this isn’t a part of that. This will continue to be flown under the existing certificate with European crews, according to Thomas. So again… why bother doing this?

I can only assume the main motivation here is that winter in Europe sucks. Yes, that applies to the weather, but I’m talking about the demand for air travel specifically. In the summer, Norwegian and most airlines in Europe fly the heck out of their fleets and make as much money as they’re likely to earn for much of the year. In the winter, it’s much tougher. Norwegian and others have airplanes that they don’t want to fly in the winter in Europe so they’re always looking for ways to creatively use them.

For example, it’s been common to see European carriers lease out extra airplanes during winter to carriers that have stronger winter demand. Here’s a photo of Sun Country and Transavia doing just that. But Norwegian is taking this a whole step further. And while it’s horribly inefficient to use 3 airplanes for this operation, think of it as an experiment. If it works, then they can work on building an operation that would be more sustainable.

How long will this experiment go? Norwegian says it’ll go as long as the flights are profitable. So I assume they’ll end on December 4…. My real guess is that it’ll be a test this winter that may not come back again. But are there other locations around the Caribbean that could make sense? Thomas said that there were more regulatory hurdles for other places but the airline is open to the idea. I suppose we’ll see how this all unfolds to see how hard they push in the future. But these particular routes really don’t seem likely to succeed.

[Original Aircraft Carrier photo and Viking Ship photo via Shutterstock]

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