The Scandinavian low-cost carrier, Norwegian has expanded at a phenomenal rate in the last few years – not least at London Gatwick where its long-haul operation using brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft has proven a real hit with passengers. But according to some reports from sources at the airline, all is not well amongst the cabin crew community.
Norwegian has really focused on expanding its hold on the British long-haul market. The carrier has gone head to head with British Airways on a number of key transatlantic routes, such as New York JFK as well as more unlikely candidate destinations like Denver and Seattle.
A recently launched service to Tampa Florida should also prove very popular and the airline has even attempted to compete on routes such as Singapore and Buenos Aires, although with mixed success – the Singapore operation is due to be axed just over a year since it was initially launched.
But Norwegian has also been beset with problems – if rapid expansion wasn’t enough of an issue in itself, the carrier has also had to contend with ongoing issues with its 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
As recently as September, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce was warning airlines of fresh problems with its Trent 1000 engines that carriers, including Norwegian, use to power its Dreamliner’s. In a leaked memo, Rolls-Royce said there could be “additional short-term disruption” – and that comes after two years in which airlines have been facing disruption caused by the troublesome engines.
Like many airlines that use the affected engines on their 787’s (some airlines chose a different engine option which hasn’t caused any problems), Norwegian has been forced to ground some of its fleet in order to send them into maintenance long before they were originally meant to be.
The ongoing debacle has been a real issue for Norwegian and in order to continue operating a full schedule, the airline has turned to wet leasing planes from other airlines. The process, sometimes known as ACMI – in which the contractor provides the aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance – is a relatively common practice although not on the scale that Norwegian has become accustomed to.
And the saga continues – in the last few weeks, we’ve learned that Norwegian will be using wet lease operators on a number of routes from London Gatwick to New York JFK, Chicago, Denver and Fort Lauderdale between November 2018 and January 2019. Other Norwegian long-haul bases, including Paris and Rome, have also been hit by the disruption.
The situation is bad enough for passengers – brand new 787’s, featuring all the passenger-pleasing benefits of a Dreamliner, as well as state of the art seat back entertainment have been swapped out with often ageing wet lease aircraft that have attracted a fair amount of criticism.
But it’s also Norwegian’s very own cabin crew who are being adversely affected. We’ve heard reports of many Gatwick-based crew being placed on significant periods of standby duty because so many of the airline’s services are being flown by wet lease operators. As ‘flight pay’ makes up a significant sum of a crew members wages, there’s clearly a cause for concern.
And those issues are being compounded by the way the airline is structured – while passengers simply know of Norwegian as well Norwegian, the company is actually split into several subsidiaries – the Scandinavian arm is Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS) while Dreamliner operations at Gatwick come under Norwegian UK (NUK).
Will Norwegian combine air operator certificates?
Each company has its own air operators certificate and aircraft can only belong to one or the other. You wouldn’t be able to get NUK cabin crew, for example, working on a NAS registered plane. So, on occasion, Norwegian has used NAS registered planes to fulfil the Gatwick schedule while grounding British-based cabin crew.
Of course, this should all be temporary – at some point, the Dreamliner engine problems will be resolved (although it seems to be taking a lot longer than anyone could have originally imagined). There’s even significant chatter of Norwegian combining the NAS and NUK air operators certificate which would greatly increase resilience and interoperability – an official announcement is expected early in the new year.
This isn’t the first time Norwegian has come in for criticism over the management of its Gatwick-based fleet. In a way, it’s probably expected that a little confusion will arise when new operations takeoff so quickly and things do appear to have settled down in the last year. As a young fleet, we’ve received mixed reports although the mood appears friendly, positive and fun.
In the last couple of weeks, Norwegian was reported to be the largest non-U.S. airline serving transatlantic routes to and from New York City, taking the crown from British Airways. Recent figures from NYC’s Port Authority revealed Norwegian had flown 1.67 million – while BA had only managed to fly 1.63 million passengers.