Norwegian Air announced on Thursday it would begin new long-haul routes from a hub in Barcelona to Africa and South America. It’s an ambitious project for the company after its nightmare first foray into intercontinental flights, ongoing issues with access to the US, and staffing problems including the current threat of strike action by Scandinavian cabin crews and pilots.
Chief Executive Bjørn Kjos confirmed to newspaper Aftenposten that Norwegian Air had plans to expand its long-haul network. The company opened a new Barcelona base at the start of April, currently flies to 69 destinations from Spain’s second largest city, and expects it will be ready to operate the new routes by 2016. Norwegian Air’s new Irish operating permits mean the routes would fall under an EU license scheme, and the company won’t have to seek permits for every new route.
“It is completely natural for Barcelona to become a hub for long routes, both to Africa and South America,” Kjos said. “There is a large flow of traffic which goes to these continents, and Norwegian will be a company that flies where the large passenger volumes are found.”
Kjos would not be drawn on the exact cities the company has in mind, but Aftenposten reported he has previously spoken about routes to Cape Town in South Africa and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Other popular South American routes include Bogota, Colombia and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Norwegian Air’s first intercontinental flights began last Spring from Oslo to New York and Bangkok, before expanding to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A new long distance base is scheduled to open at London Gatwick at the start of July. By summer Norwegian will have seven Boeing 787 Dreamliners in its fleet, and by 2018 aims to have 17 planes operating long-haul routes.
It’s an ambitious plan, given the company’s intercontinental operations have been plagued with trouble to date. Delays in the delivery of the Dreamliners, then ongoing technical problems once they arrived meant customers who’d been sold the Dreamliner experience were shunted onto smaller, older, hired-in planes. Technical problems left hundreds of passengers stranded in the US over Christmas and the New Year. The company’s Irish airline licenses were contested, it was accused of social dumping after hiring cheaper Thai crews, pilots threatened to strike and US unions sought to ban Norwegian from flying into America. Passengers lodged a record number of complaints. While Norwegian still recorded a profit in 2013, it was significantly down on recent years.
Norwegian’s latest Dreamliner delivery was delayed this Spring after cracks were found in the wings of the Boeing 787s during test flights. This week the airline faced yet another challenge, with cabin crew based in Norway going on strike over labour negotiations. While just one flight attendant was symbolically taken of the job, the strike could escalate to include 1,200 Norwegian and Danish staff. Pilots have threatened to take sympathetic strike action, which would cripple Scandinavian operations.