Is there enough room for another ultra-low-cost airline in the increasingly crowded transatlantic market?. Primera Air, a relatively small carrier, based in Riga, Latvia, is about to find out.
When Norwegian Air Shuttle launched its first flights between London and New York in 2013 with one-way fares sometimes as low as $99, it upended a market that until then had been dominated by legacy airlines charging four to five times as much.
How did it manage to undercut the competition? By utilizing new, fuel-efficient aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and more recently, the Boeing 737 Max; by charging extra for almost everything, from meals to checked bags to assigned seats; by offering low transatlantic fares; and by aggressive expansion.
Now, Primera Air, which will begin offering service between Boston and New York (Newark) and London, Birmingham, England and Paris this spring, hopes to succeed by using the very same strategy.
Initially, Primera Air, which began life as JetX in Iceland, operated charter flights for major Scandinavian tour operators. But the airline gradually started selling surplus seats as “flight-only” tickets on some of its fixed charter flights. Primera Air continued to increase both the number of routes and flight frequency, resulting in a mixed charter/scheduled carrier business model.
Since those early days, the airline has turned its business model “upside down,” according to Anastasija Višņakova, Primera’s vice president and chief commercial officer. The majority of its flights are now scheduled.
The carrier has already shown it intends to be aggressive, announcing its plans to expand by offering flights between Europe and Canada before it’s even acquired its first aircraft capable of transatlantic flights.
“We plan a fast-paced expansion,” said Višņakova. “This is the way to go – very aggressive.”
Primera is the third airline with Nordic roots to offer low-cost transatlantic service. Like WOW, it traces its roots back to Iceland. And like Norwegian, it promises to provide nonstop service across the Atlantic, as opposed to WOW flights that require a stop in Reykjavik.
“Maybe there’s something in the air” to explain why Nordic-based carriers have entered the low-fare transatlantic market, Višņakova said.
Or, more likely, it’s what Višņakova described as a “revolution” in aircraft design, with the introduction of the Airbus 321 NEO and the Boeing 737 MAX. Both aircraft offer a range that makes intercontinental flights possible.
Primera will launch its transatlantic service using the Airbus321 NEO, the first of which is due to arrive in early 2018. By year’s end, the airline plans to have eight A321 NEOs, including two long-range variants.
Onboard, there are 198 seats in three cabins. The standard economy seat pitch is 30 inches. There is also an Economy Comfort cabin offering 32 inches and 16 Premium Economy seats in a 2-2 layout with a pitch of 49 inches. There is no in-flight entertainment system, but Wi-Fi is free and there are power ports available throughout the aircraft.
The airline also has an order for 10 Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft and is scheduled to be the launch customer for the new aircraft in 2019. Višņakova said the airline expects to eventually expand its fleet of 737 MAX9s to 20 aircraft.
While they would appear to be direct competitors, Norwegian and Primera have slightly different strategies.
With both carriers offer ultra-low fares for bare-bones service, they differ in how they deploy their aircraft. Norwegian flies its single-aisle 737 MAX8 aircraft, with a seating capacity of 189 passengers, from secondary markets in the US, such as Providence, R.I., Hartford, Conn. and Newburgh, N.Y., to Ireland and Scotland, as well as seasonal service to Norway and Northern Ireland.
Primera, on the other hand, will fly directly from Boston and New York’s Newark to the United Kingdom and Paris, a decision, Višņakova said, that will give the airline a competitive advantage.
In London, however, Primera will base its flights from Stansted Airport, rather than more popular Heathrow or Gatwick.
Višņakova said Stansted gives the carrier the opportunity to grow its UK operations as opposed to already crowded Heathrow and Gatwick. She said Stansted was also located in an attractive catchment area, with industries and education facilities similar to those located in Boston and New York.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Višņakova, explaining one of the reasons behind the decision to establish a base in Stansted. The airline is “looking to the future,” she commented.
And Višņakova sees a growing opportunity in Birmingham, as other carriers have announced they’re suspending service to England’s second largest city. “Birmingham booking numbers are very, very good,” she said.
Višņakova said bookings so far exceed the airline’s expectations. “We’ve had a great reception in Europe and an increasingly warm reception in the US,” she said.
She said the carrier is relying mostly on online marketing to get the word out about its service in the US. It must be working: Višņakova said between 60 and 65 percent of current bookings are coming from the US.