Norwegian Air’s boss Bjørn Kjos collected two industry awards this week but also admitted on Wednesday that he erred in setting the airline’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliners into service too early. Since then, his airline has faced major delays, cancellations, angry passengers and a pilots’ strike, but Kjos claimed he’s not giving up on the still-troubled long-haul service.
“Now we’re putting the thrust into long-distance,” Kjos told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) at the Paris Air Show on Tuesday, shortly after Norwegian Air was named the world’s Best Low-Cost Airline in Europe and the World’s Best Long Haul Low-Cost Airline by Skytrax. The awards from the independent research firm for the air transport industry based the awards on passenger surveys of airline performance.
They likely came as a surprise to the hundreds of Norwegian Air passengers who recently were stranded both in Oakland, California and in Oslo earlier this month, when Norwegian once again experienced technical trouble with one of its Dreamliners. Although the Dreamliners’ chronic “teething trouble” that plagued Norwegian Air in 2013 and 2014 has eased to some extent, the long-haul route between Scandinavia and Oakland has had problems, again last weekend when a flight to Stockholm was cancelled. Norwegian Air has no backup aircraft of its own when Dreamliners create nightmares, and always has to scramble to charter in replacement aircraft.
“In hindsight, we see that the Dreamliner aircraft were put into scheduled traffic too early,” Kjos told DN. “We had too few aircraft and it was difficult to get hold of replacements. We were extra vulnerable. All new aircraft models have childhood ailments and need extra maintenance. In this case, maintenance has been too poor.” He admitted that the Dreamliner delays and cancellations “have been a nightmare for some passengers, that’s very clear.”
He claimed most of the Dreamliners are now operating as they should, but passengers have complained that the fleet is too small to reliably serve the ambitious route plan Norwegian Air has set up. Norwegian will take delivery of four new Dreamliners next year along with new shorter-distance aircraft. Some of the new Boeing 737s will also be put into service between Europe and the US East Coast to further expand Kjos’ long-haul project.
“The market in Scandinavia is quite saturated,” he told DN. “Pretty much all the new aircraft will be used to feed the long-haul routes or serve them.”
Kjos is well aware, meanwhile, that the airline he founded just over a decade ago has seen its once-high-flying reputation take a dive. And then, in March, 200,000 passengers were hit by the pilots’ strike, Norway’s largest strike in the private sector for more than 10 years. Kjos still claims he had no choice but to “face the fight” with the pilots in order to retain commercial management of the company.
That makes the new Skytrax awards akin to bandages on the wound. “We’ll just have to live with the decline in our reputation for a while,” Kjos said. Awards, he noted, are often a product of “consultants with their own expectations who decide who wins. Here it’s the customers who have valued our product.” When the Dreamliners are running smoothly, he said, “results will come quickly. Without the Dreamliners, we never could have delivered a better product than our competitors.”