Norwegian Air Shuttle aims to go intercontinental and hire pilots in US

Norwegian Air Shuttle is evaluating plans for a base in Buenos Aires with flights from cities including Oslo, London, Paris, Madrid and Barcelona as the next phase of its long-haul, low-cost expansion strategy.

Services to the Argentinian capital could start in 12 months if government permissions are granted, said Bjorn Kjos, the airline’s chief executive, in Cordoba, adding that the Latin American country’s second-biggest city also has the potential to become a domestic hub.

Norwegian Air has ambitious plans for extending the low-cost travel model to inter-continental flights using a fleet of Boeing 787s that will swell to 42 by 2020. It is also adding 30 extended-range Airbus A321neo aircraft that could be used on shorter long-haul routes by 2022 and has even said that smaller 737 Max jets, of which it has 100 on order, might operate some trans-Atlantic services.

South American flights would begin with two 787s and create at least 200 jobs, Mr Kjos said. That would be welcome in Argentina, where a recession deepened in the second quarter as the president Mauricio Macri’s efforts to implement free-market reform acted as a brake on an already flagging economy and foreign direct investment has been scarce in recent years.

Norwegian also plans to recruit and hire commercial airline pilots in the country as the carrier expands flights out of Florida.

Norwegian will be the only European airline to hire US-based pilots, ait said. With bases in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and New York, the company brought on US flight attendants starting in 2013 and plans to have more than 500 by the end of this year.

“Hiring American pilots for our long-haul operation has been one of Norwegian’s goals since launching our trans-Atlantic service three years ago, and we are thrilled that we are finally able to do so,” said Asgeir Nyseth, the chief operating officer.

The airline plans to add more routes from the US this year and in 2017. It now operates 44, including including 37 to Europe and seven to the French Caribbean, has plans to add routes during the rest of 2016 and in 2017. It also may add more crew bases in the country.

Norwegian may hire as many as 100 pilots in the U.S. “just to start,” Mr Kjos said, and will take on more for a Fort Lauderdale base if its able to add flights.

In South America, Argentina is “a hidden jewel”, Mr Kjos said, with “the largest potential I have ever seen” for increasing visits. “But to attract tourists you need to have cheaper flights.” Fares could fall to one-quarter of what airlines now charge, selling from about US$300 for a round-trip to Europe, he reckoned. For domestic services a Cordoba-Buenos Aires return would need to be priced at about $50.

Mr Kjos said he is also speaking with authorities in the Chilean capital Santiago about possible routes there, although he is less keen on entering the Brazilian market.

Low-cost operations on short-haul routes, in which Norwegian specialises, require intensive timetables to make money and Mr Kjos said planes would need to be in the air 18 or 19 hours a day for the long-haul model to work. That might mean the introduction of connecting or multi-leg fights such as India and South Africa to the Americas via Europe.

South America is attracting outside operators as an economic downturn, weaker local currencies and increased dollar-linked costs squeeze local players.

Qatar Airways said in July it would pay $613 million for up to 10 per cent of Latam Airlines, the region’s biggest carrier, while China’s HNA last year acquired a 24 per cent stake in Azul Linhas Aereas Brasileiras for $450m. Colombia’s Avianca and Avianca Brasil are seeking separate partners while planning to merge in the longer term.

Norwegian Air is still awaiting permission from the US department of transportation to use its Irish subsidiary for trans-Atlantic US flights and has also applied for such rights for its UK unit.

Connecting cities on Europe’s Atlantic coast, including Edinburgh, with smaller airports in the eastern United States, such as New York’s White Plains airfield or Stewart airport, will mean customers paying less than $150 for a round trip starting next year, Mr Kjos said.

The Fornebu, Norway-based carrier also plans to establish a base of American pilots in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, initially hiring as many as 100 cockpit crew if it can expand US operations as planned.

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