Cautionary Tale: A Transatlantic Trip Gone Wrong With Norwegian
Norwegian has been quick to expand its footprint in the US, and its inexpensive airfare makes the carrier particularly appealing for those looking for a great deal for a comfortable product. In fact, every TPG staffer (and TPG himself) who's flown with Norwegian — both in Premium and in economy — has enjoyed their time on board. But, not all travelers have had the same positive experience.
TPG reader Matt S. wrote in with this story about a recent flight from New York (JFK) to London (LGW). After reading positive reviews about the carrier, he decided to go for its Premium product, purchasing two tickets for he and his wife on one of the carrier's 787 Dreamliner aircraft. But after he'd bought the tickets and completed his trips, there were two major problems.
Everything seemed fine with his flight until a couple of days before departure when he noticed that the aircraft had been swapped for a Boeing 777-200, operated by EuroAtlantic, a Portuguese charter company. Concerned with the switch and wanting to confirm with the carrier that he and his wife would still have Premium seats on the new aircraft, he contacted Norwegian and a representative told them that they still had seats in the forward cabin.
The day of the flight, they arrived at JFK and a counter agent told them that they had, in fact, been downgraded to economy. Because the 772 has fewer seats than the Dreamliner, Matt and his wife were forced to accept the downgrade rather than buying another ticket at the last minute, with Norwegian offering a 75% downgrade refund for the segment. According to Matt, the two ended up being placed in the middle section of the 772 and flight attendants wouldn't let them move to an exist row of bulkhead. "I've flown in economy on cheap domestic airlines before and this was so much worse," Matt said.
This isn't the first time we've heard of the low-cost carrier making an aircraft swap on one of its transatlantic routes. In Matt's case, one of the carrier's 787-9 aircraft was down for maintenance, and because Norwegian doesn't have any spare aircraft, it's forced to sometimes operate its flights with chartered aircraft from other carriers — this time, with EuroAtlantic. But, this also raises the question of when Norwegian is responsible for telling passengers when there's been an aircraft swap. Should the carrier be giving its passengers more notice? Should their same class of service be guaranteed, regardless of whether there's been an aircraft swap?
We reached out to Norwegian, and a spokesman for the carrier said that a customer being downgraded is something it tries to avoid at all costs. Director of Communications for Norwegian Anders Lindström said that in this particular case, the customer service department had "contacted most, if not all, customers originally booked in Premium trying to offer rebooking or voluntary downgrade," and that by not taking it resulted in an involuntary downgrade at the airport. Lindström noted that the customer was compensated for the downgrade, but Norwegian understands his frustration with not getting the experience he'd originally booked.
As for the aircraft swaps, Lindström said:
"It is exceptionally rare for Norwegian to swap aircraft types, and usually they happen very last minute when a major delay occurs. Instead of cancelling our flight, we are fully committed to getting our customers to their destinations as quickly as possible, and therefore wetlease aircraft from a wetlease operator who carriers out the flight for us. This results in a much shorter delay, although still a delay. These aircraft are unfortunately not comparable to our modern fleet and large Premium cabin, but instead of stranding passengers, we want them on their way as soon as possible."
As for what a passenger flying Norwegian can do in a situation when their aircraft is swapped, the carrier says to be sure your phone number is connected when you make your booking. That way, in the event of a delay, cancellation or aircraft swap, you can receive SMS updates and, if you want, to make a change to your itinerary.
So, what are your options if your aircraft has been swapped?
- Be sure to input your phone number during the booking process to ensure you receive SMS updates from Norwegian if there is a swap.
- Pending availability, you can switch your flight to another day or destination in the same cabin free of charge
- If your seat was downgraded, accept it and get refunded a portion of that segment.
- Norwegian offers a change of departure free of charge for aircraft swaps.
Along with the aircraft swap on Matt's trip from JFK to LGW, on his flight back with Norwegian, he faced another issue that seems to plague the carrier. While the aircraft wasn't swapped and he sat in the Premium cabin, as he'd purchased, the flight was delayed.
According to European Union law, if a flight originating in the EU is delayed by three or more hours and isn't the result of extraordinary circumstances, passengers are entitled to compensation. So, when Matt's return flight arrived back in New York, he was expecting to be compensated for the delay — 300 euros for each passenger — as he believed it to be delayed more than three hours, as it shows on Flight Aware.
However, Norwegian said that the flight was delayed just 2 hours and 54 minutes, and is therefore not required to compensate the passengers. As it turns out, these delayed flights with Norwegian are more common than one would expect, especially for transatlantic travel. A search of the most recent Norwegian Flight 7015 legs on Flight Aware shows that 9 of the past 14 flights were delayed for at least some amount of time.
Norwegian offers travelers the option to get between the US and Europe on the cheap, but there are certainly problems that nag the carrier. Its lack of backup aircraft creates the issue of aircraft swaps, and in some cases, a downgrade in seats for Premium passengers. Like Matt's story shows, it's something to keep an eye out for if you're planning a transatlantic trip with the carrier.
Hopefully in the future Norwegian can improve both its on-time performance and how it goes about letting passengers know about its aircraft swaps and what the passengers' options are. The carrier has surely expanded quickly in the US, and more route additions are likely. But, before you purchase the $99 one-way ticket to Europe with Norwegian, be aware of what the possibilities are — both swaps and delays — and what you'll be charged with its low-cost carrier fees. Nonetheless, if you don't come across any issues, the carrier offers a perfectly comfortable product and solid on-board experience.