Not only was it Norwegian Air Shuttle’s first flight from Oakland International to London Gatwick, it was also the first scheduled flight ever from Oakland to London.
When invited to participate in a media “simulation” of the Norwegian inaugural flight on May 11—which meant I would go onboard a couple of hours before the flight to experience the product, then deplane—I was curious. Norwegian’s fares to Europe are strikingly low, I’d never flown the young airline, plus it has been the subject of some regulatory controversy. I signed on for the evening.
(This post was written by TravelSkills contributor Nancy Branka)
A notable element of this route is what it’s not: SFO to London-Heathrow (LHR). The Norwegian flight instead links those airports’ smaller single-runway neighbors: Oakland and London-Gatwick (LGW). OAK has always been a favorite of mine because, unlike SFO, weather rarely affects on-time arrivals and departures. Its small size also makes it quick to navigate, and now it’s getting a $100 million facelift in Terminal 1, plus a $35 million international hall.
Gatwick (LGW) is also up-and-coming as Heathrow reaches capacity limits. LGW is 28 miles south of central London but still convenient–the easy 30-minute, approximately $30 Gatwick Express will whisk you from the airport to Victoria Station in the heart of the city.
Another thing that Norwegian Air is not: A business class airline. On its 787 Dreamliner, it only offers seats in economy class (259) and premium economy class (32). No pricey-but-cozy lie-flight seats here. But… all premium economy seats offer in-seat power outlets if you want to stay up and work across the pond. Norwegian refers to its premium economy seats as simply, “Premium.” (Norwegian also flies nonstop to Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen from Oakland.)
Really, the OAK-LGW fares are hard to beat, in peak-season July starting at $1,130 round trip in economy and $1,700 in premium economy. (Compared to premium economy fares on BA or Virgin SFO-LHR which run around $2,250 roundtrip.) Ben Kaufman, Norwegian’s communications manager, told me the carrier will not reduce fares for a summer sale because they are already booking at 90% loads. However, he suggested premium economy fares would be reduced later in the year on all flights, with this route being one of the early beneficiaries.
Once I boarded the 787-800, it was fun to explore before sitting in the premium cabin for dinner. Remember, for Norwegian, premium does not mean business class but compares to premium economy on other carriers. Seats do not fully recline. Norwegian’s SVP sales, Lars Sande, explained that lie-flat seats are three times as costly, and it was more important to customers to keep the fares low. Economy cabin seat pitch is an acceptable 31-32 inches; premium economy is 46 inches.
My meal sounded beautiful on paper (for example, Grilled Jumbo Shrimp with a mildly spicy and flavorful Thai Green Curry Sauce), but I had trouble getting past the cardboard box in which it was served, this being premium class and all. The shrimp was OK, but I wrestled with removing the layers of foil that covered it—which added to the self-serve feeling, again not feeling the premium. At least premium economy fares do include complimentary meals (dinner and breakfast) and alcohol, while economy fares do not.
Something I particularly liked was the plane’s aesthetic—grey leather seats accented with the company’s signature red. I was especially enamored with framed, poster-sized black-and-white photos of Nordic heroes hung on bulkhead walls. Similarly, the airline’s tail fins feature black and white portraits of these icons.
At some airports, but regrettably not Oakland, Norwegian offers premium economy passengers access to special airport lounges. Oakland-bound passengers can enjoy a lounge at London-Gatwick, for example. Plus, premium economy passengers get access to speedy Fast Track lines at customs and immigration when arriving at LGW.
If you generally fly business class and want to arrive in London well rested and feeling a little special, this is probably not your airline. But if you just want to get to London as inexpensively as you can and don’t mind sacrificing some things to achieve that, Norwegian Air may be your ticket.
Have you flown Norwegian Air? What did you think? Please leave your comments below.
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