British Airways Targets Norwegian with New Transatlantic Flights

British Airways, Norwegian

It’s a Europe-kind of week here on the blog, and today we’re talking about British Airways. (This post almost didn’t get finished since the fantastic World Series game 7 kept me glued to the TV last night, but I powered through.) British Airways is one of many airlines that has been closely watching Norwegian over the Atlantic, trying to figure out how to respond to its rapid growth. The time for watching, however, is over. British Airways is starting to drop the hammer.

BA 777 Norwegian

This May, BA started a flight from New York/JFK to London/Gatwick. Yes, the airline had generally used Gatwick only for leisure routes (Vegas, Tampa, and Orlando in the US), so it was a bit strange. But it had flown Gatwick-JFK before and so it wasn’t entirely out of character. Since Norwegian had started it, I wasn’t surprised to see BA take a swing.

Then last week, BA announced 3 weekly (4 in the summer, which seems backwards) from Gatwick to Ft Lauderdale. Ok, not so weird on the surface, right? I mean, they already fly Orlando and Tampa to Gatwick. But then again, BA already has 2 daily from Miami just down the road in addition to joint venture partner American’s two daily there. Miami is also a major hub for American. So yeah, it’s a little strange, but again, Norwegian is there.

This week, however, came the strangest add of all. If there was ever any doubt that this was a strategy targeting Norwegian, that has been erased. There is no other reason why BA would begin flying four times a week from Gatwick to… Oakland.

BA already flies twice daily to SFO and has a new once daily flight to San Jose. So why the heck does it need an Oakland flight? Because Norwegian is there. Comparing the Oakland flight to the San Jose one explains a lot.

The San Jose flight is a true business route aimed at Silicon Valley. It’s operated by a 787-9 with 8 first, 42 business, 39 premium economy, and 127 coach seats for a total of only 216 seats. This route’s success is highly dependent upon how it sells in the premium cabins.

This, is of course, very different from how Norwegian operates. A Norwegian 787-9 has 35 premium economy and 309 coach seats for a total of 344 seats. Yeah, that’s 60 percent more seats than BA has on the same plane, so obviously, if BA wants to compete, it can’t use that airplane.

So, over in Oakland (and on the Ft Lauderdale and JFK routes as well), BA is using one of its 777-200ERs that’s configured for leisure travel. These airplanes are mostly 15+ years old and would probably be on their way out in favor of 787s if not for this particular leisure niche. The airplane has 48 business, 24 premium economy, and 203 in coach for a total of 275.

Of course, BA is hoping that it can attract travelers over Norwegian for several reasons. One is the fact that it has a true business class unlike Norwegian. The other will be frequent flier loyalty. But can it beat Norwegian at its own game?

I suppose it’s important to note that Norwegian doesn’t seem to be all that great at its own game in the first place. It certainly underperforms other low cost carriers in Europe, and long haul is believed to be a large part of that. On long haul flights, it’s much harder for low cost carriers to get a big cost advantage than on short haul. Aircraft configuration is a big driver, so BA is on the right track. But it probably needs to get a lot denser. Right now it only has 9 abreast in coach on those 777s. It could probably get this up to 300 seats if it went for 10 abreast.

But that may be a bit premature. After all, BA can use the dense-ish configurations it has to see if this experiment will work from a revenue perspective. If so, then it can turn up the pressure and tweak the model as needed.

I like that BA isn’t messing around with some silly airline-within-an-airline model here. Just sit on top of Norwegian with a good airplane and make them sweat. Fares will come down, so get ready for that piece of good news, Bay Area travelers. This will also open up new connecting opportunities on BA, especially to leisure spots in Southern Europe that BA only serves from Gatwick. Of course, that’s not the point of the service but it’s a nice benefit.

British Airways has to be hoping that this pressure will make Norwegian focus on European-US flights that bypass London. If that happens, then BA wins. I’m not so sure that this is going to work, but then again, BA can’t be sure either. But it has the airplanes and it needs to find a way to compete one way or another. I like the effort.

[Update 11/4: Now the other shoe has dropped. It was announced today that the BA 777s will now get fewer business class (48 -> 32), more prem econ (24 -> 48), and 10 abreast in coach adding more seats (203 -> 252). That’s 332 seats ready to fight Norwegian.]

[Original image via British Airways]

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31 comments on “British Airways Targets Norwegian with New Transatlantic Flights

  1. Typical BA spoiling tactic. Dilute the route and wait…

    BA fares are from GBP 377 rtn which for round trip is amazing value…

    Watching with interest.

  2. Cranky, it’s a shorter drive from OAK to the Embarcadero (downtown SF) than from SFO….just sayin. When I have meetings in the Embarcadero I always fly to OAK if I can. And it’s also a shorter BART ride.

    1. You can also use BART and the bart connector … way better than driving. Way more reliable than the Bay Bridge.

    2. Boris – I don’t disagree that OAK is better in many respects, but most people buy differently. Remember when JetBlue built up Oakland? The second Virgin America started flying to SFO, people forgot about JetBlue. People just prefer SFO even if it doesn’t always make sense.

      1. I think that OAK may not be marketing itself well. Perhaps a name change to “SF/Oakland International Airport” is in order.

  3. Guess it’s a good thing Escape is opening a lounge at OAK this month, as that’s going to be BA’s only short-term option for premium passengers. BA has been on a tear recently, it’s just unfortunate they are watering down their product so much.

      1. The BA ripoff surcharges apply whether paying with money, AA miles, or Avios. I would NEVER pay those surcharges.

        1. Jerry – On a paid ticket, those surcharges are in the quoted fare. It’s the same at every airline. The only place it makes any lick of difference is on award travel.

          1. 1. I can go to Europe with no surcharges on other Oneworld airlines.
            2. I always use AA miles or Avios to Europe and BA wants the ripoff charges, anyway.
            3. With BA surcharges included in paid fares, use other airlines.

            1. Yes, and their quoted revenue fares (including surcharges) generally match other airlines (say, United) who also have fuel surcharges in their revenue fares. Sorry, what you are saying makes little sense.

      2. What’s that? Is it when you use money to buy flights without credit card points? Are you sure that’s still possible? :P

  4. I have to admit that I assumed this would be very much skewed to US point-of-sale traffic relative to BA’s other Bay Area offerings but the press release makes a good case for lumping Oakland in with the main tourist attractions in Northern California as a whole. They’ll probably have to lean heavily on BA Holidays and other package providers on that point.

    Does anyone know if this will be a seasonal route? It strikes me as something to run through the summer, but there wasn’t any mention of it in the link.

    1. Itami – In the Ft Lauderdale release, it mentioned seasonal differences. Since it’s not mentioned here, I’m guessing it’s year-round. I do see it in BA’s schedules through next October, but we can’t see beyond that.

  5. I’m a little surprised that AA is ok with this since this all falls within the JV. The flights you mentioned plus LHR-MSY are all adding capacity to the TATL market. Considering AA just cut flying to some secondary Euro cities, partly because of depressed revenue, seems to make this a weird situation within the JV.

    1. Jeffery – Good point. Though, American’s management team is in favor of not giving an inch to low cost carriers. They might be able to appreciate this strategy despite the riskiness.

  6. They are pushing it here as BA being the only airline to serve London from all three bay area airports. Should be interesting to see how it plays out on OAK-LGW with two carriers since SFO/SJC flights use LHR.

  7. Agreed BA seems to be acting under competitive pressure. However, they may be in for a pleasant surprise in Oakland, if they continue to treat the market with the due LCC respect demonstrated by the aircraft selection you describe. Real estate prices are driving people out of the natural catchment for SFO, across the bay, further populating the geographically larger natural catchment area of OAK with potential travelers. As a bonus, OAK has fewer weather delays and potential regional cross-feed from the frequent flyers of Southwest, at least until WN starts BWI-LGW. Of course, OAK will need to grow its facilities in step.

  8. When I first read the announcement, I thought it was odd since AA has very little feed and AS isn’t much bigger at OAK. Never thought of the anti-DY angle.

    1. I don’t think many people would be flying over from London only to turn around and connect to NY/Philadelphia/Charlotte flights…

  9. Cranky Flier | British Airways Targets Norwegian with New Transatlantic FlightsYo Cranky While you were watching THE ballgame, a bunch of folks in a nearby desert were “freshening-up” twelve (12!) BA 747-400s for “BA HEAVY” aka

  10. British Airways has just announced they are shrinking the size of their premium cabins on several aircraft types, adding more seats on their A320 family aircraft and refurbishing 777s to have 10 abreast coach seating.

    1. Tim – Just updated the post with the info BA released today. With 332 seats on the 777s now, those are going to stack up quite well against Norwegian, especially considering ownership costs.

  11. What happens to Norwegian after the UK leaves the EU? Will they still be allowed to fly UK-US routes? (I realize Norway itself isn’t in the EU either)

    1. Nobody knows what will happen at that point yet, but Norwegian does have a UK subsidiary sitting in DOT purgatory, waiting to be approved. I’m sure it’ll find a way to make it work, though foreign ownership laws could become an issue depending upon how the EU-UK relationship is structured.

  12. Early this week one could book BA from MCO for $500 r/t for July or August 2017. It is up to $700 as of today. Either one is cheaper than DY out of MCO at this moment. When the prices were $500, the Wife and I almost moved our planned month in Europe up to 2017 from 2018. Flights to MCO from Memphis via Southwest would easily be under $1,000 for our crew of four and compared to flying from MEM direct that’s more than half cheaper than what the US carriers want. Now, when DY gets their new 737Max and A321neos will they start their promised sub $100 fares to the east coast?

    DY has always said they are going after passengers that would have otherwise never fly TATL. BA seems to be trying to mostly protect existing passengers. Maybe both, with highly competitive fares, find their planes full. I’m drooling at the prospect of travel overseas at half of what it was two years ago. That allows longer trips, better hotels, more spend on the ground and more frequent travel.

  13. It’s what they do. Ask BCal, Dan Air, Air UK, BMI. Oops, you can’t. They were all driven out of business.

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