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Should You Fly Norwegian's Premium Cabin? Um ...
Thursday, March 15, 2018 -- The columnist's conundrum: Give you what you want or do the right thing.
I know what you want: A review of Norwegian's premium cabin. Ever since I mentioned last month that I would test it, you've been E-mailing, asking what I thought. You're anxious for information so you can decide if it's okay to fly because those fares are, you know, insane.
But the right thing is to wait. I've only flown two premium segments on Norwegian, not nearly enough to offer a nuanced opinion or separate airline practice from possible one-off quirks.
But those fares, you say, and I need to book to some Europe travel soon. Tell me what you know ...
Okay, you win. I'll tell you ... on the express, written condition that you understand this is the editorial equivalent of looking through a straw. Two segments is hardly a rational sample when you consider a disruptor like Norwegian. You know that intellectually. I need you to accept that emotionally, too.
LEGACY APPLES, NORWEGIAN ORANGES
First, foremost and most importantly, you need to understand that Norwegian's premium cabin is not a legacy-carrier business class. Not in service or amenities, hard or soft in-flight product or even attitude. Price notwithstanding, even the poorest business class on a traditional U.S. or transatlantic airline is better than Norwegian's premium cabin product.
Yet the Norwegian premium cabin is leagues better than any U.S. or international premium economy class. It is much more spacious, with many more perks. It is almost certainly cheaper. If I can draw physical comparisons at all, Norwegian's premium cabin feels like the super-spacious prem+ on the original OpenSkies. Or because Norwegian uses widebody Boeing 787s Dreamliners, like business class felt 20 years ago.
OH, YES, THOSE FARES ...
We're primarily interested in Norwegian because of the ridiculously low and mostly restriction-free premium cabin fare structure. All Norwegian fares are one-way purchases, so no Saturday-night stays, roundtrip requirements or open-jaw penalties. I paid around $1,100 all-in for a Newark-Rome roundtrip. That's an eye-popping price--and even better than it seems because I purchased each segment several weeks apart. The fare freedom is almost as exhilarating as the prices.
After a deep dive on Norwegian.com, a general rule of thumb is that a roundtrip using Norwegian's cheapest, nonrefundable one-way fares is about half what legacy carriers charge for their least expensive, most restrictive business class roundtrip. Norwegian's fully refundable walk-up fares sell for about the same price as the legacy airlines' most restrictive business class rates.
Just three years after its U.S. launch, Norwegian flies nonstop to a slew of cities in Europe from 15 gateways. But don't be fooled: With the exception of Austin (to London/Gatwick), Chicago/O'Hare (Gatwick), and Denver (Paris/CDG, Gatwick), Norwegian isn't bringing Europe nonstops to flyover country. It's a Left Coast/Right Coast play. And three U.S. gateways--Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Newburgh, New York--are served solely with high-density, all-coach narrowbody aircraft. Premium service is only available on Norwegian's Boeing 787s and the nonstop European destinations are the usual suspects.
THE GROUND GAME
Norwegian's premium fares include dedicated check-in counters, although they're often staffed by less-than-knowledgeable third-party contractors. (However, when I checked in last week at Rome/Fiumicino, the third-party agent voluntarily called and confirmed that the inbound aircraft had arrived and told me the departure gate literally hours before it was posted on an airport monitors.) You can choose your seat assignment free when you book. Two checked bags (44 pounds each) are free. Fast track security clearance is offered at some airports.
Then it gets dicey. Lounge access "at selected airports" is included in premium fares, but all clubs are third-party operations. Some are fine (the OneWorld Lounge at LAX), some are atrocious (Art & Lounge at Newark). Boarding seems chaotic, a combination of less-experienced Norwegian flyers and Norwegian's laxity. There are separate boarding lines for premium cabin flyers, but ID placards aren't conspicuous and surging crowds tend to tax overworked gate agents.
THE NORWEGIAN PREMIUM SEAT
The Boeing 787s that Norwegian currently uses in U.S. service are configured with five rows of reclining chairs in a 2x3x2 layout. Seat width (19 inches) is just fine. So are the pitch (46 inches), legroom (55 inches from seatback to seat in front of you) and recline. There are adjustable leg/foot and head rests. Seat controls are mechanical, not electronic. You receive a just-a-bit-too-thin, just-a-bit-too-short duvet, but no pillow. I found the chairs unwelcoming as seats--stiff and insufficiently padded--and uncomfortable as pseudo-beds. I'd really like to test additional segments. Mark me as a skeptic for now. Your mileage--and comfort--may vary.
F&B AND IFE
Two full meals are included in a premium fare and here is where Norwegian makes no attempt to be a business class. There are no menus, no tablecloths or napkins, no metal cutlery, no wine presentations or course-by-course service. Everything is plastic and everything--mains, sides, salads, dessert, whatever--arrives in a box. It's distinctly no-frills-cum-picnic. The food was certainly edible, especially on the Rome-Newark leg. But, lordy, this is not an ecologically sound operation. You won't even receive a bottle of water or get refills. Flight attendants do circulate frequently with half-filled glasses, so you could run through 15 or 20 plastic cups during a flight. The planet weeps.
As for the in-flight entertainment system, there are at-seat power plugs and USB ports, but no Internet. The screen is large enough and there are sufficient episodes of U.S., British and even Norwegian television, a good choice of movies (including three nominated for best picture at this month's Oscars) and a few documentaries. But no music choices at all.
QUIRKS AND QUIBBLES
Premium cabin passengers don't receive amenity kits, so bring what you'll need in-flight. ... Norwegian's earbuds come in cute, round, red cases, but they're awful--a problem given the gigantic engines roaring away just outside the premium cabin. Bring noise-cancelling headphones. ... Norwegian's low fares attract a core of up-front first-timers. They are so giddy with the extra space that they adore standing around and clogging the aisles before departure. Families fly up front, too. But the children were well-behaved on my flights--because even kids are happy when you give them room. ... Outside of a cursory pre-departure beverage and the two meal times, you must order drinks and snacks from the IFE system. You don't pay, but you need to haul out your credit card, run it through the IFE and poke the screen for a Coke or a glass of wine even though the flight attendant may literally be only a row away. ... Flight attendants retrieve the duvets well before arrival and your compliance is mandatory. ... Norwegian usually runs one roundtrip a day in each market and uses the same aircraft on both segments, so delays can cascade. Example: My Rome-Newark flight was on-time. A day earlier, however, a mechanical on the previous night's Newark-Rome flight led to a three-hour delay on the Rome-Newark return.
I'd like to fly Norwegian a few more times, but I think this is a fair conclusion: The less you pay, the more you will like the premium cabin. At $1,100 roundtrip, I'd give my flights a solid B. If I had paid the $2,200 walk-up price, however, I'd grade on a tougher curve. Still, I'm glad Norwegian is in the market and you have to love the idea of simple, one-way pricing for acceptably spacious on-demand nonstops to Europe.
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