Norwegian airline Widerøe’s trademark green aircraft are nearly the same colour at their latest unusual tourist destination: the Northern Lights. Flights to see the Northern Lights, from high above any clouds that can impede viewing from the ground, are the latest in a string of efforts to generate growth for the venerable airline and help it stay competitive.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Tuesday that Widerøe’s own cabin crews came up with the idea of offering a new option for tourists traveling to Northern Norway to see the Northern Lights shimmer in dark winter skies. The plan is to offer one-hour flights from the airport in Tromsø: “Especially on the days when the weather is overcast, this can be an attractive offer for visitors,” Terje Skram of Widerøe told NRK.
The flights will be offered from January until March, Skram said, catering to the ever-rising numbers of tourists who now travel to Northern Norway and especially to Tromsø to experience winter and experience the Northern Lights. Visitor counts have quadrupled over the past 10 years, making the Northern Lights as popular as the Midnight Sun in summer.
“For us, it will be very exciting to test out this concept,” Skram told NRK. “To be honest, we’re a bit uncertain about the actual market for this, but if the planes fill up, we can devote even more attention to this and offer flights from more airports (in Northern Norway).”
Local tourism officials were delighted, calling Widerøe’s initiative an “exciting” form of product development that could keep visitors from being disappointed if skies aren’t clear during their stay. “I think this will complement the Northern Lights offers we have already,” Trond Øverås av Nordnorsk Reiseliv told NRK.
Widerøe, which has flown along Norway’s coast for more than 80 years, is on a bit of a roll regarding measures aimed at making sure it can keep flying high. Like other airlines, it has seen a decline in business travel since oil prices fell two years ago. Widerøe nonetheless recently extended its contract with the state to serve short-runway airports from Trondheim north to Kirkenes, and was pleased that it won all the routes in competition with two other regional carriers, Fly Viking and Danish Air Transport. “We were a bit surprised that we won all the routes, but stretched ourselves to get them,” Widerøe’s chief executive Stein Nilsen told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) last month.
Taking on SAS and Norwegian
Those routes are seen as relatively protected from other competition, using propeller planes that fly to the small airports along Norway’s long coastline. DN has reported, however, that Widerøe may also challenge its former owner, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), and Norwegian Air on the more major domestic routes in Norway.
Widerøe wants to renew it fleet and order new jets that have greater capacity and lower operating costs than similar aircraft, and run them in direct competition with SAS and Norwegian. The plan, reported DN, would make Widerøe a third player on several domestic routes in Norway and abroad. The major expansion plan hinges on Widerøe winning concessions from its pilots in a new collective bargaining contract. If successful, Widerøe could offset weak traffic on its routes to and from small airports with the new aircraft that could generate growth on new, more heavily trafficked routes.
“We hope to make a decision (on the fleet and route expansion) by New Year,” Nilsen told DN last week. Widerøe is negotiating with both Bombardier of Canada and Embraer of Brazil for the new jets, provided it has support from employees in the form of cost cuts. “I think everyone wants to make this work,” Nilsen told DN. In effect, the airline would invest as much as NOK 6 billion in new aircraft that can provide new opportunities and cut overall costs. Widerøe also hopes to be able to open new direct routes between Norwegian cities that would eliminate the need to travel through Oslo, for example from Bergen direct to Bodø and Tromsø.
After being sold off from SAS, Widerøe is now owned by WF Holding, which in turn is owned by Torghatten, with a 66 percent stake, and Fjord1, with 34 percent. Widerøe currently has around 1,500 employees.