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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55 comments on “Norwegian Brings Its 737 to the US… From the Caribbean, Not Europe

  1. In general, this idea is pretty solid. If cruise ships can do it, why not the airlines?

    I am surprised that Norwegian didn’t target more familiar destinations for US travelers. Why not try Cancun, Punta Cana, Montego Bay, and Costa Rica and then fly to secondary US airports who would be glad to have the service. I assume that Norwegian could then partner with some of the large vacation tour operators who sell packages of airfare + hotel packages.

    By flying mostly to New York and Boston this looks like a direct attack against JetBlue. Good luck with that.

    1. Guadeloupe and Martinique may be in the Caribbean, but they are legally part of France with (virtually entirely) the same legal status as somewhere like Lyon or Marseille in the European part of France. They are not colonies or overseas possessions – they are treated as part of domestic France and thus part of the EU, in the same way that Hawaii is considered part of the USA. Thus if an airline can fly from anywhere in Europe to the USA under US-Europe open skies, it can fly from Guadeloupe to the USA.

      Countries like Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Costa Rica are not part of the US-Europe open skies, and thus Norwegian would not have traffic right between these other countries and the USA.

    2. Mexico/Costa Rica/Jamaica are not part of the Open Skies agreement.

      Overall I like the idea but hate the execution. Why only focus on JFK, BOS & BWI?? Hasn’t Allegiant taught anyone anything? Of course major east coast airports will have plenty of service to Caribbean destinations, but secondary airports in cold weather cities? For example an airport like MKE can pull from a huge population (north Chicago, etc.) and people in WI, IL will gladly leave for the beach in January at the right price.

      Hell, I’d like to visit Martinique but with no interline agreement it would be a PITA to fly into BOS or JFK and transfer. This is O/D traffic only in an already flooded market. Bad move.

      1. A – Allegiant takes people from small cities to big tourist destinations. Norwegian is, in this case, taking people from big cities to small (or unknown to Americans) tourist destinations. I think small city to small tourist destination would work out even worse here.

    3. I don’t think they can fly to those under the same rules because they don’t count as Europe. That being said, there are a number of islands (more popular?) that are under Dutch control (St. Maarten), that are more popular, but here again, there’s more competition to/from these cities. Speaking of JetBlue, I think they have 3 flights a day to/from just SXM. So I think Norwegian is stuck between a rock and a hard place. I guess the they chose flights to JFK/BOS especially, they’re trying to capitalize on the Martinique & Guadeloupe O/D visiting friends & family, which aren’t otherwise served.

      Tell you what though, those crews who are getting an all expenses paid trip to the Caribbean, with very light work should be pretty happy.

      1. Guadalupe and Martinique do count as part of Europe – they are fully part of France, not overseas territories or possessions. They are part of what’s called the Outermost Regions of the European Union.

    4. these islands are easiest as they are french territory. Not every island would be so friendly to a european carrier flying from their country to the US.

      Cruise ships do it because “The ship keeps sailing”. Here, the planes will be on the ground, a lot. But if it is better than being on the ground in Europe, and helps win a PR battle to get other US flights, it is a very interesting play.

      A lot of the carribean leisure destinations fall under the motto “if you fly it they will come” as the competition between the islands is heavily influenced by convenience and ease of access. So this may be great for those islands.

      Kudos to the strategist or RM who thought of this experiment.

    5. Nathan – the reason is that none of those destinations are “in Europe” (legally speaking), and except in limited circumstances, you can’t fly flights that don’t start or end in your country (“Europe” now being a country in this case b/c of EU agreements).

      What’s odd to me is that they’re STARTING service to these destinations, since it doesn’t look like they serve any of them from Europe, despite the fact that they could probably make money flying tourists from Northern Europe to these places, at least say, once a week.

  2. CF – have you ever been to anywhere in Scandinavia between November and March ? The weather there is not just bad; it’s absolutely terrible. Furthermore, apart from the Canary Islands (islands off the coast of Africa), there is no European equivalent of Florida – even in places like southern Spain beach demand is very low.

    In the last decade, Ryanair used to ground a large chunk of its fleet every winter because they couldn’t cover direct operating costs (i.e. cost of fuel, airport charges and staffing). For an airline which has a lot of leisure demand for its product, I imagine Norwegian must have similiar troubles in winter.

    While the beaches are lovely, I’d be more concerned about Guadeloupe / Martinique being very much French speaking and whether residents of the US east coast can be persuaded to go somewhere which doesn’t really do english particularly well.

    1. Having been to Guadeloupe / Martinique and many of the other Caribbean islands they all speak English, use the US dollar and are full of Americans and Canadians who they rely on for tourist dollars to support their islands. Americans have been going there for years, what really matters is flying/lodging costs to these markets compared to other islands that will make or break the service.

      1. David SF – These islands both have French as their official language and use the euro. Further, they get very few tourists from the US today. So are you saying that they unofficially speak English and accept dollars… like Cabo?

        1. I can vouch for the USD / English portion. I spent a lot of time in St. Barths (St. Barthelemey) – also a French Territory and most places will accept USD and also speak english. USD isn’t preferred, but almost all places will have 2 credit card readers – 1 for euro cards (with that lil chip in them) and another for US/Canadian credit cards.

          The French do the caribbean much much better than any other national conglomerate. When I go to St. Maarten, I honestly can’t wait to get to Grand Case or Anse Marcel – the french side vs dutch side is TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT worlds….

          1. I love Martinique .. a lot of why is BECAUSE it feels very much like France. There is little/no use for dollars, VERY little english and FULL of frenchies. It’s a DOM not a TOM like St Barts or any of those other islands you mentioned. It’s a french state . . like hawaii to the us. I used to go from Paris on the 747 service . . Since being back in California I have researched a few times how to get back for a vacay but it’s always been way to complicated making use of the Air France service or the AA flights which have always been too hard to connect in a timely fashion. Looking forward to visiting again!

          2. I agree with David SF eastbay and haolenate: Guadelupe and Martinique are wonderful places to experience the glories of the Caribbean and the delights of French culture at the same time. I have preferred them over other Caribbean islands since I first visited in the early 1970s. Norwegian’s flights between Guadelupe and Martinique and mainland U.S. cities will be a very good thing for Americans, as it will give them easier and cheaper access to these islands.

  3. Interesting – I hope it works out for them. If you decide to give it a go and they run things as in Europe, be prepared for very tight control of baggage weight, including carry-ons, and steep fees if you go over by even 1 kg. Plus extra aggravation since at least at some airports, they send you to a separate desk to pay, then you have to come back to check-in get the bag “approved” at the higher weight for carry on with a paper tag.

  4. And the US Big 3 were worried about the ME3…this could be very interesting. It’s almost like impulsive shopping. You buy and then get home to realize what a disaster it is.

  5. @Nathan: Norwegian wouldn’t have legal rights to fly between the US and any of the alternate destinations you suggest. They can operate these flights because Guadalupe and Martinique are both integral parts of France itself, not overseas territories, so they’re fully part of the European Union, and Norway is considered an “European” airline by the EU (Norway is not actually a member of the EU, but of the European Economic Area, so they have rights to operate to EU countries.) Norway is a party to the US-EU Open Skies treaty, so that should take care of the legalities on the US end.

  6. Love the idea of Europe in the Caribbean! The next step is using a European airport that’s located in North America proper. It appears that St. Pierre airport can handle the A320, so there’s a 1-stop connection between the U.S. and mainland Europe.

      1. Not a tourist destination, but a way to utilize the short-haul fleet between the U.S. and major destinations in Europe. Air Canada flies a 319 from St John’s to Heathrow, and St Pierre to Norwegian’s base at Gatwick is only 200 miles longer. To Dublin it’s even shorter. Granted, St Pierre has a shorter runway, but it may be technically possible.

        1. I’m hardly a pilot, but looking briefly at some of the 737’s runway length tables suggests that there are many circumstances in which 5900 feet is too short. Pity.

  7. Good for them for trying something different. What crew wouldn’t want to spend the winter in the Caribbean instead of the frozen north.

    The service is not unusual since AF used to have a narrowbody hub in MIA to service the French islands and so did IB for the spanish speaking destinations of the Caribbean and Central America.

    It will just tick off U.S. carriers who will just match price and maybe service.

  8. For their JFK flights, does their timing, day of the week allow for connections from their OSL/ARN/etc.. flights?

    1. OhioExile – Not really. On the northbound flight, it’ll arrive around noon and then you could wait around until the late evening flights over to Europe. But on the return, it would require an overnight at JFK. They aren’t selling connections either.

  9. It is all about trying to get a tiny bit more utilization out of planes which would otherwise sit idle. I asked him about that yesterday as well. Basically they normally ground 15-20 planes in the winter anyways. This keeps a few moving and, while not particularly efficient, also isn’t completely awful.

    1. Wandering Aramean – Yeah, I get that, but it still is a bit frightening that this is the best option they have for those airplanes. Seems to me they’d be better off leasing their airplanes out to other operators who can use them. I’d imagine they’d make more money. But hey, I guess it’s worth a try.

  10. This is great news for Francophiles in need of some sun who don’t want to endure the time consuming and expensive Air France “milkrun” from Miami to the French Caribbean.
    What is concerning is where all these passengers are going to stay. Both islands have very little four star hotel product other than the Club Meds on each island.
    There’s not much of a transportation infrastructure though the highways are in great shape having been engineered by the French. Cabs can be pricey. Rental cars run around $300/week. The high season accommodation situation may prove tricky as Air France flies jumbos, and French tour operators have contracts in place at the plethora of three star properties on the islands.
    I’ve only been to Martinique, one of my all time favorite islands. If your looking for a good value for a getaway, have your travel agent snag you the $898/week Club Med deal in early December and take advantage of the introductory fares that will no doubt be forthcoming. Even if you’re not the Club Med type the property occupies prime real estate in the Diamant section of Martinique. The scenery is breathtaking, the island still retains a lot of charm as it hasn’t been overdeveloped, and the local distilleries produce some fantastic rum! What’s not to like?
    It does help to be able to “parlez-vous” some French if you visit.

  11. French beaches! Pictures? Post cards?

    Oh my, those crazy, straight-laced Norwegians… probably upstanding Lutherans, no less! OK, we looked, we saw, but, you know, well, what could we do? And, when did you say service was to start?

    1. No, none of the British Overseas Territories have the legal status of “Outermost Regions of the EU.” They aren’t considered part of the UK itself, have no representation in Parliament, and are largely autonomous except for defence and foreign relations. They largely control their own immigration policies, and citizens of the UK proper don’t have automatic right of abode there. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any in the Caribbean that use the pound as their currency – most use the US dollar or a local currency that’s linked to USD. (Some in other parts of the world use GBP or a local sterling-linked currency.) I’m actually not sure how their international air transportation is governed.

      Here’s a humourous summary on the EU’s structure (or lack thereof) from my favourite YouTube blogger that summarizes (among other things) the Outermost Regions and other types of overseas possessions by EU members:

      1. CraigTPA – That’s a great video. Only thing that surprised me was that French Polynesia wasn’t an outermost region. I figured it was (and thought we might see a Norwegian 787 on the LA – Tahiti route some day). But I guess not.

  12. Boy Norwegian sure loves to lose money, and this only confirms it. Tiny local market, pricey islands, zero awareness in the US. It’s a bit like B6 and BDA–sure you can give away the airfare but the hotel is still going to cost an arm and a leg.

      1. thats not quite right.
        Aruba, Curacao, and St Maarten are countries and not Europe proper like Guadeloupe and Martinique.
        Bonaire, Saba, St Eustatius, and St Martin are Europe proper. Of those, only Bonaire has a long enough runway for a jet.

        1. Did a little more reading on this, and now my head hurts a bit. To clarify, as john said Aruba, Curacao, and Sint-Maarten are countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along a fourth country called (confusingly) the Netherlands. The key – which I didn’t know – is that the Netherlands is a member of the European Union, but the Kingdom of the Netherlands is not. So the other three countries are not considered “Outermost Regions”, but “Overseas Countries and Territories” (they got around the whole “Kingdom Of…” thing through a separate treaty in 1964, when they were still joined as the Netherlands Antilles, which clarified their status since they weren’t covered by the original Treaty of Rome.)

          Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius are OCTs of the EU member the Netherlands. They inherited OCT status as successors to the Netherlands Antilles, but they’d have it anyway as territories of the Netherlands (the country, not The Kingdom Of.)

          So in the end, they’re all OCTs in the eyes of the EU and none of them are covered by US-EU Open Skies, same as the British Caribbean OCTs.

  13. If they have more seasonal planes to spare, why couldn’t they bring a couple more down and connect the inbound passengers to any Caribbean airports that can accommodate a 737 like SXM or BGI?

  14. look for JetBlue to add these markets soon from JFK and BOS and maybe FLL, Spirit may even jump on the bandwagon and add FLL to these markets…JetBlue is adding every place in the caribbean anyway…Norwegian is adding service to the caribbean with their 787 from Europe anyway….some people are always looking for new tropical islands to visit, Norwegian is going to open a can of worms with a fare war and they are doing it with Irish reg planes…they will do anything to get around rules and regulations….wondering how many more planes they will register in Ireland, i heard they were registering the 4th plane….3 will be for the caribbean, wonder where the 4th would go…they could easily tag the new new markets to ones they are going to serve and move crews around that way….will be interesting to see this play out….

  15. I’m going to disagree with CF.. This’ll be back in December 2016. The flight just has to earn its marginal costs plus a little more. Essentially they’ve got an airplane thats not going to be doing anything else, so they might as well try something.

    At least they’re not doing a Vision airlines deal and having no spares in the fleet.

  16. I think a big motivation to this is the Club Med tourist potential. Club Med has been looking for a way to help fill these resorts with North American guests, as there is definite appeal, and Norwegian’s flights from the Northeast offer nice opportunity for some sort of contract with the European company. I’d be surprised if one doesn’t already exist.

    Also, Martinique does enjoy 4x weekly nonstop service from MIA on American. It was a weekly service, but has been expanded this spring, and will go to 6x week on mainline jet service at the end of the summer.

  17. No way I would want to fly one of their 186 seat 737-800’s. That’s a tight squeeze for a 738, almost as bad as Ryanair. That’s torture.

    1. Have flown it. Not as bad as you’d think. Actually their 737 service on shorter flights is actually pretty pleasant.

  18. Surely Montreeal and Quebec would be the obvious markets, n’est-ce pas? Yes, different traffic rights. It’s not U.S. to Europe but maybe Canada – Europe would also allow this.

  19. Americans: Look forward to this service. I fly these 737s regularly on domestic services in Norway. Brand new planes, free Wifi, good service.

    They compete wing-to-wing with Scandinavian Airlines in the domestic and European market, and are winning!

    1. Initially I thought that Wifi wouldn’t be available, since most of it is ground based.

      But per Norwegian’s site, they use satellite based Wifi, which means it could be operational on these flights. <> The question is though if the satellites to support it are visible to over the Caribbean.. Maybe maybe not. I wouldn’t be surprised if Norwegian just disabled the Wifi instead of making the arrangements with a satellite provider that serves the Caribbean/US region.

  20. I like the lodgings rented by individuals in Guadeloupe. Very welcoming and can be very inexpensive. I’ve been there 5 times since 2000. Highly recommended for francophiles who speak french. Search “locations de vacances Saint Anne” to be in a great spot near Club Med’s Caravelle beach. This town is very nice and caters to tourists. Best not to go for Christmas, it’s crowded.

  21. ?When I was with Air France, they flew the route but it went MIA/PAP./PTP/FDF and sometimes on to CAY.
    For some odd reason , you had to get off at each stop? for about 45 minutes. If you hit the airport bars you were looped upon arrival! Great rum!
    It was a very expensive flight.
    I can’t help but think that the tourist boards might be footing some of the bill.
    Not since the heyday of Club Med has there been much air service except from France.
    I loved Martinique. It’s beautiful!

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