Not for the first time, the Vikings are invading the UK and heading west to North America.
Following Norwegian Air and Iceland’s Wow Air comes Denmark’s Primera Air, which will bring budget flights from Stansted and Birmingham to New York, Boston and Toronto next spring.
Primera is the latest airline revolutionising transatlantic travel with a new generation of aircraft. Norwegian has already paved the way – not from Gatwick with its wide- body fleet, but from Edinburgh, using a Boeing 737, an aircraft more typically flying to Benidorm than Boston. New souped-up versions of the Boeing, the 737MAX and, in Primera’s case, the Airbus A321neo (new engine option), with more efficient turbines and extra fuel tanks, are rolling out of the factories and creating a world of possibilities.
Primera Air’s vice president and chief commercial officer, Anastasija Visnakova, believes the timing of the move is perfect.
“There are not really a lot of airlines doing this,” she says. “We are at the right time with the right equipment; the only direct competition we have is in the regions or flying with a stopover. It’s perfect timing. People are getting used to the fact that transatlantic is becoming low-cost and that high fares are history.”
She concedes that there is a lot of brand-building to do in the UK, where Primera Travel Group has had no presence at all, but says: “We’ve been in the market in Europe for 14 years – we’re not a start-up. You can compare us to something similar to Jet2holidays.”
Primera began as a charter airline, but three years ago entered the scheduled low-cost short-haul arena. “We reached a really good financial point and decided to go into the UK market,” she adds.
Unlike Norwegian, Primera will fly to primary airports, including Newark, which she believes will give it the edge. “We won’t go to secondary airports – we want to offer low fares, but you are going to New York and Boston. Being an unknown brand in the market, it’s really hard to make people go to an unknown airport where you have to spend $200 to get to the city.
“We have a completely different product. Would you willingly stop somewhere like Reykjavik if you could go direct for the same fare or [for a] price difference that’s not that huge?”
The point about Reykjavik is aimed squarely at Wow Air, which also arrives at Stansted next April and from where its connection to JFK will take 11 hours. It’s not all about London, however, as Primera announced its Birmingham base days after United Airlines revealed the closure of its Birmingham-New York service on October 5, leaving the two cities unconnected this winter.
“Great timing,” says Visnakova. “Bookings have exceeded expectations.” She adds that Primera is planning for an average 87% load factor on its new flights, despite no visible advertising since sales began in July.
“How we approach the market is generally to focus on e-marketing and digital,” she says. “We also work with the local travel trade, business travel agencies and airports.
We’ve invited people to events and presentations about the airline. At Stansted, we’re also talking direct to businesses in the Cambridge area. Marketing is changing – it’s not about print, newspapers or putting banners in the street.”
Primera’s first passengers will find a brand new Airbus A321neo, with two stationed at both Stansted and Birmingham. By the end of 2018, the carrier will also have four A321LRs (long range). Both types can fly transatlantic non-stop, but the LR will reach destinations further inland in North America. Visnakova says neither type will need a fuel stop en route under any conditions.
Onboard, there are 198 seats in three cabins. The standard economy seat pitch is 30 inches, an inch tighter than British Airways or Virgin. There is also an Economy Comfort cabin offering 32 inches and 16 Premium Economy seats in a 2-2 layout with a pitch of 49 inches.
There is no in-flight entertainment system, but Wi-Fi is free and there is one power point between two throughout. Premium passengers are supplied with an amenity kit (which Norwegian does not supply) plus blanket, but others must pay for extras, including blankets. To those in the main cabin, Visnakova advises: “Bring your own water.”
Standard fares are hand baggage only (New York leads in at £149 one-way including taxes), with Economy Comfort fares offering hold baggage and a meal. “I would say that more than 35% of customers book the Comfort product,” says Visnakova.
As it gears up for the transatlantic launch, Primera has also confirmed flights to Spain from Stansted and Birmingham next spring plus more UK bases to come. Moreover, it has 20 Boeing 737 Extended Range MAX aircraft on order equally suited to both Spanish and US routes. Watch out, the Vikings are on their way.
Regional UK airports look likely to benefit most from a growing number of transatlantic flight options as budget carriers build connections and non-stop flights in the next few years.
New narrow-body aircraft types will soon enable routes not previously viable or possible to be established. It is not just budget carriers getting in on the act; Aer Lingus, which is building Dublin as a transatlantic hub, has eight Airbus A321LRs
on order. They boast a range of around 4,700 miles, or roughly nine hours’ flying time, and will reach well into in the US and Canada, not just to the east coast, from 2019.
Skuli Mogensen, founder of Iceland’s Wow Air, says: “There is a fundamental shift in the transatlantic market with the new narrow bodies, whether
the A321 or the (Boeing 737) MAX. As a result, we have got more competition coming.”
Mogensen believes that the budget revolution has expanded the market by
reaching those previously unable to fly transatlantic.
“One of the things that makes me most proud is people saying thank you for enabling them to fly. When you bring $99 fares to transatlantic, you open the market far beyond what the traditional textbooks tell you.”
He plans to connect Asia with North America from next year via Wow’s Reykjavik hub and is filling in the gaps in the US. Next year, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and St Louis are added, with connections from the UK.
Like Primera, Mogensen has ambitions to establish bases outside Iceland. “We have plenty on our plate for the next two years. Once we are fully up to speed, I do see an opportunity to go outside Iceland,” he says.