Who the F*&@ is Primera?

It’s been awhile since I did one of these posts, but the time has come to take a look at Primera, an airline you may be surprised I’ve ignored for this long. After all, Primera had aggressive plans to use narrowbodies to fly between the US and Europe this summer. While there have been problems, it is actually flying on some routes. So let’s take a look.

Primera started out as an Icelandic company back in 2003. Its original focus was the usual story for an upstart in a cold weather climate: carry leisure passengers in cold places to the sun. It did just that primarily as a charter operator. That changed over time, and while the sun-chasing element is still there, it’s now doing it mostly with scheduled flights. The company relocated to Riga, Latvia with a subsidiary airline operating out of Denmark. You can see its European destinations here:

As you can imagine, Primera’s routes are pretty much taking the dots on the top half of the map and connecting them with the dots on the bottom half. The number of destinations may make you think it’s bigger than it is. The airline has, according to its website, 10 737s buzzing around Europe, and that’s it for now (but MAXs are on order). It seems to have carved out a decent niche, and that would normally be the end of the story. But Primera has decided to dream very big.

The airline made a big splash last year when it decided to take A321neos and fly them across the Pond. This summer, Primera is flying twice daily from Newark (one to Paris/CDG and the other to London/Stansted), once daily from Boston (3 weekly to Paris/CDG and 4 weekly to London/Stansted), once daily from Toronto (3 weekly to London/Stansted and 4 weekly to Paris/CDG), and toward the end of the summer it begins flying 5 weekly flights from Washington/Dulles to London/Stansted. I find this all very confusing, because the best I can tell, it only has two neos flying right now, so the math doesn’t add up. I know it has had to get creative — Newark to Paris is on a 767 right now — but presumably this is all due to not having enough airplanes in the fleet just yet. Eventually this should be all A321neo if it can make it long enough to get all those airplanes in the air.

The neo is configured with 198 seats onboard, which isn’t all that dense. (Hawaiian’s A321neo has 189, but all-coach operators can easily squeeze in over 220.) It does have two cabins, similar to what you’ll find on most longer-haul low-cost airlines, but it’s not an overly-generous premium cabin.

There are 16 seats in the premium economy section. This looks to be a fairly standard premium economy offering. Here’s the photo the airline shares.

Don’t be fooled. That first row does have a nice leg rest, but you can clearly see the rows behind do not. It looks like it’s just a domestic-style First Class seat with a footrest in most rows. You get a meal, a small amenity kit, and a power outlet when you fly. Oh and you get water. If an airline has to point that out as Primera does on its website, I’m not sure how “premium” it really is.

In the back, Primera provides the usual no-frills offering that you’d expect on an airline like this. One article says that the airline has 30-inch seat pitch in the regular seats which isn’t all that tight. But there is also an extra legroom section which apparently has two more inches, not all that roomy. You have to pay for any seat assignment, of course, and any food or drink you might want. The only thing included without charge is a USB power outlet.

The airline has strangely chosen the generic slogan of “Fly better, fly Primera Air.” The point, however, isn’t supposed to be that you’re flying “better” but rather that you’re supposed to be flying CHEAPER. And it IS cheaper at a quick glance. Looking at one way fares, I could get a coach seat the next day for $799 with no frills from Newark to London. I could also get premium economy for only $899 on that same flight. And if you have any kind of advance purchase, rates plunge. On July 7, when I checked on Friday, it was $279 with no frills to London or $749 in premium.

So what do I think of this? I don’t get it. An efficient widebody can get you lower seat costs than even the most efficient narrowbody. So on major Transatlantic routes like the ones Primera is flying, it’s going to be hard to compete. Even Norwegian knows to put 787s on those routes (when it isn’t leasing in some stray aircraft out of necessity). Sure, Primera can be a spill carrier in the summer when fares are high on the other airlines, but the rest of the year will likely be a bloodbath. This isn’t likely a sustainable model.

To me, the more interesting idea is that one that Primera had to scrap this year. It was going to fly from Birmingham in the UK over to North America this summer. A321neo delivery delays, however, killed that plan. That’s not entirely correct. It did start flying from Newark with a leased National 757, but with neo delivery dates slipping, it pulled the plug for all flights from June 21. It says it’ll try again next year.

That kind of market seems far more promising. There isn’t any Transatlantic service to speak of from Birmingham now, and a narrowbody could create a decent niche, especially during the summer. But we won’t know if that’ll work or not since the service is gone.

Primera apparently likes to think of itself as one of the “world’s top low-cost long-haul carriers,” but that distinction appears to be based upon weekly departures, not exactly a helpful metric. Just because you’re getting bigger doesn’t mean you’re doing well. This summer was a big jump for the airline, so we’ll see if the results are positive or not. Chances are, summer may be ok if enough people find that the airline exists, but when demand falls off into the fall, that’s when it will get tough. Personally, I’m hoping Primera makes it until next year. Then we can see if that Birmingham plan might work.

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Eric Morris
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Eric Morris

Then those dastardly Peaky Blinders will be able to spread their empire further into North America.

grichard
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Wouldn’t an obvious answer be to use planes to fly transatlantic in the summer, then flip them to flying chilly Brits to Majorca in the winter?

Kilroy
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I got curious and checked… I may be wrong, but based on a quick Google, it appears that the A321neo doesn’t have quite enough range (even when fighting the strong headwinds in winter) to deliver chilly Brits to Orlando.

David
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David

Mallorca in the winter isn’t actually that much fun. Easyjet have remarkably few flights between London and Mallorca in January for a reason

Kilroy
Guest

Good point on the “free water” observation, Brett. My rule of thumb is that if a company/product tries hard to tell you how premium it is, it probably isn’t, especially if it has been around a few years and emphasizes features that are included in the market’s standard offerings. Truly “premium” products don’t really need to boast about the fact much, and often include unique and useful features.

Also, the logo for Primera is as generic as their slogan is. It’s almost like they couldn’t afford decent branding/marketing, and just picked off-the-shelf clipart and wording instead.

A
Guest

The press photo doesn’t look like a seat I’d shy away from on a 7-8 jaunt across the pond but I’d prefer it in a widebody. I have done 757 flights to Europe on Icelandair which weren’t terrible with the stopover at KEF. Non-stop all the way into CDG sounds like a long time in a confined space. Maybe it’s all perception but having two aisles makes me feel way more relaxed when traveling on long flights. Also, if all I get is a glass of water I’ll probably get pretty hangry on that length of flight. Assuming they sell… Read more »

alan
Member

The reviews so far suggest the operation has been a disaster, both from the UK and France. Long delays and cancellations, low loads and huge numbers of claims under the infamous EU261 which Primera seem to have been ignoring long before it started transatlantic operations this year. The base fares are indeed cheap but the fees on top do not suggest this is sustainable, meals are $49.99 each way, a piece of hold baggage up to 23kg $44.99 each way and a seat reservation costs $39.99 each way. Those that book do so at their own risk

VT
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FYI, I recently flew the “Primera” 767-300ER to CDG, tail number CS-TKR. According to FlightRadar24, it looks like this same aircraft goes back and forth from EWR to CDG daily. It is operated by euroAtlantic Airways. Once you step on board, the only indicators that it is a Primera-branded flight are the headrest covers. Notable moments: the fun of a descent so steep out of EWR that I thought we were going to have a tail strike, overpriced drinks, a few passengers eating hot meals that smelled like cat food, and deplaning in the middle of nowhere to be ferried… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

How would a steep descent cause a tail strike? The tail would be higher in a steep descent

andreas_akerman
Member

I am under the impression that Primera’s UK-US operation may be forced to end already next year as a consequence of Brexit. It has been indicated in industry media that ongoing UK-US bilateral negotiations will result in current UK AOC holders with EU ownership being accepted, but I believe Primera uses a Danish AOC for the transatlantic operation.

Adam
Guest

Now Boston-Stansted is using the A320neo and its on-time performance has been decent per flightaware.com but it seems like EWR is a disaster.

Georjet
Guest

Wasn’t it…what was the name…Vanguard Air? I can’t remember….some little airline based in Kansas City and flew to like Des Moines and St. Louis and something like…Little Rock…anyway….their slogan was “Get ready, get set, GO somewhere!” I always loved the irony.