Glitches involving the Oslo-based carrier's fleet of three Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets forced it to delay peak-period flights to Scandinavian cities from Bangkok, New York and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Norway's air-travel complaints agency was inundated with calls from stranded passengers, and local media have ripped into the airline over the series of breakdowns.
"We had a meeting with Boeing's maintenance team in Oslo earlier this week where Norwegian was promised swifter and more flexible maintenance routines going forward," the carrier said Tuesday. "We are fully confident that we will work through these issues so that our customers can expect a reliable on-time performance."
Norwegian Air Chief Executive Officer Bjoern Kjos has pinned the success of his intercontinental push on the 787. While Boeing's most advanced jet has the lower operating costs needed for budget long-haul flying, mechanical problems with the new model get magnified because the carrier shuttles planes between the United States and Asia via Scandinavia and doesn't have spare capacity.
"They need to fix this fast because there is definitely a reputation risk," said Danske Bank analyst Martin Stenshall in Oslo. "Norwegian has been a short-haul, low-cost carrier, but now they're moving into long-haul and there is operational risk to that."
Norwegian Air's long-haul trials come with the company committed to one of the most ambitious expansion plans in the history of European aviation after it ordered 222 Boeing and Airbus Group single-aisle planes worth $22 billion in 2012 to help grab market share in its main short-haul discount market.
Norwegian entered long-haul flying from Scandinavia to New York, Fort Lauderdale and Bangkok in 2013 and will add trips to Los Angeles, Oakland and Orlando this spring. It also aims to connect London Gatwick airport, Britain's second-busiest, with New York, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles starting in July.
Norwegian Air reckons that if the 787 performs as it should, other carriers seeking to offer long-haul discount services will struggle to compete unless equipped with the plane, which is sold out for the next few years. The Airbus Group A330, which is more readily available, might fill a niche over shorter distances but is ill-suited to serving Europe from China, a market Kjos says he's looking to in the longer term.
Dublin-based Ryanair, Europe's largest discount airline, is interested in flying to the U.S. under a different brand once new wide-body planes are more affordable, CEO Michael O'Leary said on Sept. 16. He outlined a plan to take seven aircraft annually to build a fleet of 40 to 50.
Norwegian Air's expansion plans leave little margin for error, with every delay causing a knock-on effect that may be hard to recover from, Stenshall said. In order to serve its three long-haul destinations planes must fly from the U.S. to Scandinavia and immediately on to Bangkok on what are effectively 16-hour trips, the analyst said.
The carrier said Tuesday that delivery of four more 787s in 2014 will provide "more flexibility," and that the meeting with Boeing should enhance the response to technical issues which in some cases have "taken too long to fix." It added that the Dreamliner operation has generally delivered "satisfying on-time performance."
Kjos had said in September he planned to confront Boeing about glitches that emerged on the 787's return to service after a global grounding earlier in 2013, and the CEO was in the U.S. this week, Norwegian state broadcaster NRK reported yesterday.
In the most recent failures, a Norwegian Air flight out of Fort Lauderdale was delayed for 24 hours on Dec. 21 and a New York departure on Dec. 30 by two days. Passengers returning to Stockholm from Bangkok on Jan. 1 were delayed one day, while storms on the East Coast of the U.S. caused further problems on Jan. 3.
"Passengers were put up in hotels and meals were provided for," spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen said Monday, while referring questions regarding the nature of the faults to Chicago-based Boeing. "We've done everything in our power to get all our passengers to their destinations as soon as possible," the airline added.
The glitches were given prominence by Scandinavian media during the holidays, with Norwegian newspapers including Dagens Naeringsliv and Finansavisen providing regular updates. Kjos was today lambasted in Aftenposten for being in the U.S. as complaints piled up in Norway, saying his absences suggest the airline is not taking the situation seriously.
Norwegian Air was one of a number of pioneering 787 operators which found its plans upset by the global grounding of the model last January following battery problems, being forced to delay the start of long-haul Dreamliner operations and lease less-fuel-efficient Airbus A340 planes.
Later failures with its 787 fleet have ranged from brake faults to issues with the cockpit oxygen supply, and costs associated with hiring replacement aircraft totaled $16 million in the third quarter alone.