TIME Airlines

An Ultra-Cheap, Anti-Union Upstart Airline Could Transform Flying

Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Travelers have long desired low-cost flights connecting Europe and the U.S. One emerging European carrier is making this dream a reality—and a range of travel industry forces don’t like it one bit.

Norwegian Air Shuttle, the third-largest budget airline in Europe, has been ruffling the travel industry’s feathers for months with the rollout of new international routes with exceptionally cheap fares: Think under $500 for round trips to Europe from the U.S., with all mandatory taxes and fees included. For travelers who have come to expect to pay several hundred dollars merely for the “taxes and fees” portion of their transatlantic flight tabs, these flights look like phenomenal bargains.

Norwegian’s larger competitors in the sky tend to dismiss the upstart carrier as an insignificant gimmick that’s bound to fail. Other forces in the industry have been openly critical of Norwegian’s practices, accusing the airline of everything from turning its back on its home country, to risking passenger safety, to scheming ways to avoid union rules of various countries, all in the name of lowering costs.

Clearly, Norwegian Air CEO Bjorn Kjos isn’t upset about people being upset. Responding to the idea that Norwegians don’t like that the company is no longer really a Norwegian carrier, and that many are angered that the company has hired Thai pilots and American flight attendants at a fraction of what it would cost to pay union-member Norwegians, Kjos said bluntly (via The Guardian), “We don’t give a s*** about that.”

(MORE: Airline Travelers, Your Future Will Look a Lot Like … Cleveland)

“We go where the passengers go,” Kjos continued. “Norway is just too small to survive.”

Norwegian Air has been making headlines not only because it is aggressively pushing into the North American market, but because it has established its headquarters, curiously, in Ireland. As the New York Times and others reported, Norwegian Air Shuttle received an official operating license in Ireland this week, bringing with it the possibility of a much larger expansion into the transatlantic flight market.

What makes the move curious isn’t simply that an airline with “Norwegian” in the name is basing its long-haul services (to North America and Asia) in Ireland; it’s that the airline doesn’t actually operate any flights out of Ireland. “Today’s announcement that Ireland has granted an air operator’s certificate to Norwegian Air International raises the key air safety question of how the Irish government will exercise its oversight responsibility when NAI never actually operates to or through Ireland,” said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the U.S.-based Air Line Pilots Association, in a press release bashing the decision because it “threatens U.S. airline jobs” and represents “an unfair advantage over U.S. airlines in winning passengers’ business by dodging its national laws.”

Norwegian Air already has announced or already flies between Scandinavian cities such as Bergen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen to New York, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, and Oakland. This summer, Norwegian will add all-important nonstops to London (Gatwick) from New York, Los Angeles, and Fort Lauderdale.

In a recent round of flight searches, a round trip between New York and London next October came to a total of $636 on Norwegian (including $286 in taxes and fuel surcharges). On British Airways, the cheapest New York-London round trip fare for the same exact departure days was $1,093 (including a whopping $702 credited to “taxes, fees, and carrier charges”). Granted, Norwegian charges extra for checked luggage, meals, and other services and amenities provided at no extra fee by larger carriers such as BA. Even so, given the huge difference in the initial fare, a certain kind of traveler will see Norwegian as the far better value.

(MORE: Cheap Flights to Europe Take Off: Flights from Under $500 Round Trip, Fees Included)

Can Norwegian actually run a successful business given its low fares and controversial practices? If it was easy to turn a profit with low-cost long-haul flights, surely many airlines would have already jumped into the fray. Over the years, a few carriers have dipped their toes into the market and failed. Some experts feel that Norwegian could prove to be a game-changer, however, and that the airline could truly make the discount transatlantic flight concept work for, well, the long haul.

“There have been several failures so far,” air transport consultant John Strickland told The Guardian. “I’d say Norwegian has a better chance than most – it has learned the ropes of low-cost efficiencies. But it has got to go through all sort of hoops to make it work now.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser