Director samples Norwegian Air’s premium transatlantic offering to see what the budget airline can offer business travellers on a red-eye trip from Oakland, California to Gatwick
Norwegian Air’s latest tail fin bears the portrait of Sir Freddie Laker. Clearly meant as an homage to the low-cost fares pioneer (Virgin Atlantic and AirAsia X have also named aeroplanes after him), Norwegian shares Laker Airways pioneering underdog spirit, having (once again) opened up cheap transatlantic travel for millions of passengers.
That’s where the similarities end. Laker’s airline famously went bust with heavy debts in 1982, but Norwegian Air has consistently turned over a healthy profit, making £95m in the latest three-month period alone. Their latest ruse is offering £56 one-way flights to New York by using smaller airports in the US. The likes of Stewart International Airport in upstate New York might be a 90-minute drive from Manhattan, but Norwegian CEO Bjørn Kjos believes their diminutive size means travellers will be “having a second gin and tonic before you see the other passengers get out of immigration from JFK”.
With 17 million passengers a year, Oakland International Airport could hardly be described as a secondary hub. While Oakland has a thriving arts and culinary scene to justify being based there, the airport also offers a cheaper alternative to flying into San Francisco (it’s only a 25-minute and 40-minute drive to San Francisco and Silicon Valley respectively). British Airways agree too. Last month [March], it started going head-to-head against Norwegian (who began flying the route in May 2016) by launching direct flights to the Californian city.
With its competitive £399 Premium fares, what can Norwegian Air (and Oakland Airport) offer the business traveler? Director sampled a flight between the Californian city and Gatwick (where Norwegian is the third-largest airline) to find out…
Security at Oakland is in an aesthetically lacking part of the airport. Despite this – and Homeland Security’s tight screening (shoes off, full body-frisks) – Director is through in little over three minutes. 7/10
The new $2m (£1.6m) Escape lounge is a smart distillation of Oakland’s hipster mores (the city has been termed ‘Brooklyn by the Bay’). With its muted brown/caramel shades and deliberately exposed pipes, it looks more like a cutting-edge coffee-shop or millennial-friendly microbrewery, than somewhere to hold passengers before their flight. Oaklanders are fiercely proud of their city, reflected in Escape’s localised food and drink, with Bay Area beers (Anchor Steam), spirits (Bummer & Lazarus gin) and coffee (Roast Co) all represented. There’s a day-long buffet of unique dishes, such as farro and beet salad, mushroom and tomato polenta, mac and cheese (with baia pasta) plus a seemingly endless supply of hummus, prosciutto and homemade cookies. For the travel-weary business traveler sick of shunting from one generic beer and sorry-looking cheese plate lounge to the next, this boutique offering takes some beating. 10/10
Despite some initial confusion from staff about the exact demarcations of the premium lane, boarding was swift. Once aboard Norwegian Air’s sleekly curved Dreamliner, be-chequered American cabin crew offered pre-take-off drinks of water, orange and apple juice. 7/10
Norwegian’s grey-leathered Premium seats may not recline into flat-beds (this is premium, not first-class, after all), but with 46 inches legroom, there’s enough space for even the most towering beanpole to stretch out. The Premium cabin follows a 2-3-2 configuration, while overhead lockers were deep enough to probably contain girders of the Golden Gate Bridge itself (Premium customers get two 20kg items of hold luggage). 9/10
Although there is no amenity-kit, flying in the Premium cabin on a Dreamliner (with its quieter engine and apparently jetlag-decreasing specially-filtered air) makes a koselig (Norwegian for hygge) way to cross the Atlantic. Norwegian claims that it has made its windows 65 per cent bigger than those of an average aeroplane which makes you forget you’re flying in a big old metal box. 9/10
Food and drink
Adhering to a healthy Nordic diet, dinner – which is served in a typically Scandi lagom-but-stylish cardboard box – is a choice between shrimps-and-grits with Swiss chard, beef bourguignon and chicken in a lime-and-pepper sauce. Baron Otard VSOP Cognac is offered as a post-prandial digestif (other spirits available), which is so strong passengers will probably slip into a narcoleptic slumber somewhere over Utah. Before landing, a breakfast offering of smoked salmon bagel with cream cheese and a gargantuan slab of chocolate. 9/10
The generous legroom, lighter food and all-round smoothness means Norwegian’s Premium service is a cut above long-haul premium economy on other airlines. If you’re flying to the Bay Area, Oakland’s Escape lounge ($40 passes are available if you’re not flying premium) makes a refreshing change to the generic lounges on offer at other US airports. Final score: 51/60
Norwegian Air flight info
Norwegian has five services a week from London Gatwick to Oakland International Airport.
Fares start at £149 (economy) and £399 (premium) one way.