Cork seems an unlikely location for proxy battle over budget airline flights and fares.
However when Norwegian Air and WOW Air announced plans to fly from Cork to Boston within weeks of each other that’s how it appeared - at least to the casual observer. While historically the city has been a safe harbour for ships it’s looking pretty alluring to the aviation industry.
Norwegian Air’s bid to offer budget transatlantic flights has been in the pipeline for a number of years albeit plagued with quandaries on the US side. The airline must be hoping that the US Department of Transport (DoT) have a sudden change of heart - or that the luck of the Irish shows up in time for St Paddy’s Day - as they have slated March 2017 as the commencement date of their transatlantic low-budget flight schedule from Cork.
WOW Air is flying a little less by the seat of its pants.
The Icelandic airline has the all clear to touch down across the pond and tickets are already on sale for the new Cork-North America route, with starting fares from as low as €149.00 each way. One small difference is that its planes will fly to Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, San Francisco and Washington DC – via Reykjavik.
So, it’s back to Norwegian Air to explore the possibility of direct transatlantic flights for less than one night at a Dublin 3-star hotel.
Norwegian Air CEO, Bjørn Kjos, is optimistic that his airline will be the first to achieve the journey on a budget - and make it profitable. However, the DoT has other ideas. Bolstered by objections from US politicians and trade unions, they have held out on granting Norwegian’s Irish and British subsidiaries a licence to land on American turf. (The airline can fly from Scandinavia to the US on their Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority Air Operator’s Certificates – much in the same way that WOW Air will operate - but that adds fuel, expense and the risk of disrupting its pre-existing routes).
Now more than ever Norwegian could be pinning its hopes on the Cork-Boston route if it wants to put its fleet of Irish-registered Boeing 787 fleet to work sooner rather than later.
Norwegian UK's application to conduct flights to the US from London’s Gatwick Airport was shelved (perhaps not so coincidentally) earlier this year within weeks of Brexit. It’s an act that could add years more brokering and litigation to agreeing on a flight schedule that will have similar benefits to the EU-US Open Skies Agreement.
But what does all this mean for Irish businesses and Irish business travellers?
Well, while the Cork-Boston route might be a small cog in a very large wheel of an airline intent on world domination, Irish businesses could almost certainly benefit from greater access to the North American market. Increased connectivity would only serve to further lubricate the flows of investment from one side of the pond to the other. Tourism could also be a major beneficiary; the Boston metro area boasts some 4.7 million residents, 20% of whom claim Irish ancestry.
However, those boarding from Cork to Boston, or vice versa, will have to leave the pomp and ceremony associated with business travel to one side. Norwegian has swapped out its business class seats in favour of premium economy with recliner seats on its Boeing 787 fleet.
In an interview with travel intelligence company Skift, Kjos implied that the decision was a no-brainer. Business travellers don’t need executive luxury as a rule, but airlines do need to save inches of space to order competitive prices. ‘You have to weigh what is most attractive for the passenger and what is most attractive to the airline. [It’s a] simple calculation’, he said. ‘To me, it’s about, “What do you think the passengers would like to have?” Most of the New York flights are very short flights. You need a good rest if you’re a business passenger. You don’t need a flatbed. I know that whether I provide a flatbed or premium economy, it’s a very good service’.
Time will tell if Norwegian can manage to persuade the American authorities to get the ball rolling on its ambitious plans. (Interestingly, it has been noted that Norwegian are doing for long haul what Ryanair have done for short haul – they even have the backing of Michael O’Leary.) According to Kjos, whether or not they are successful depends on if American airlines can handle the competition.