Norwegian's Singapore-UK route a boon for Changi Airport

Budget service will boost airport's hub status, force big players to sweeten deals: Analysts

A Boeing 737-800 aircraft, operated by Norwegian Air Shuttle AS, passes a Ryanair Holdings Plc aircraft. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

When European carrier Norwegian starts flying between London's Gatwick Airport and Singapore in September, it will be the longest long-haul budget flight ever operated.

The 10,841km trip will take just under 13 hours for those travelling here and about an hour longer on the way to Gatwick.

Singapore will be the second Asian destination, after Bangkok - which it launched in June 2013 - for Norwegian, which operates long- haul flights mainly between Europe and the United States.

The launch of its London-Singapore service will boost Changi's status as an airport of choice and hub for all types of carriers, analysts said.

The move could compel Singapore Airlines (SIA) and British Airways, which now dominate flights to London's Heathrow, to offer travellers sweeter deals, they added.

To mark the new route, Norwegian is offering a return fare of £348.90 (S$630) with all taxes in. An upgrade with a choice of seat, food and checked baggage will cost £449.80 - about $400 less than an SIA flight, which costs about $1,200. All seats on Norwegian's long-haul flights come with an individual entertainment screen.

Apart from affordable fares, travellers from Singapore can also access the airline's network from Gatwick. The airline covers more than 50 destinations in Europe and the US, Norwegian's chief executive, Mr Bjorn Kjos, told The Straits Times.

It will be tricky for budget carriers to sustain long-haul business, say analysts

The Singapore partnership could deepen, with benefits for the airline, Changi Airport and travellers, said the Centre for Aviation's Mr Brendan Sobie.

  • Surviving the flight

    With budget carriers flying further, here are some survival tips.

    • Don't get too excited by low fares that usually get you just a seat. For long flights, you will need food and water and checked-in baggage allowance. If you want to sit with family or friends, you will need to pay extra for seat selection. Book the add-ons early because they cost more at the airport. Many airlines - Jetstar seems to be the exception - do not allow passengers to carry food and drinks on board.

    • If you do not wish to pay for the food, have a good meal as close to your departure as possible.

    • A pack of mints helps to mitigate thirst or the discomfort of a dry mouth during a long flight.

    • It can get quite cold in the cabin during long flights. Budget carriers do not provide blankets, so carry what you need.

    • A back pillow that provides relief for the lower back is probably more valuable than a neck pillow.

    • Cabin air is dry, so bring a lip balm and moisturiser. The airline is not going to give you an amenity kit.

    • Bring a book or your own device to entertain yourself.

    • Be realistic. If there are delays, budget carriers are not obliged to feed or house you. If they do so, they are just being nice.

    • Buy travel insurance.

Norwegian is reportedly considering flights to Singapore from Paris, Barcelona and Oslo, the capital of Norway, and could also partner Asian budget airlines to expand its network in this region, he said.

For Changi, budget routes to Europe are particularly attractive in a market that has been "relatively stagnant" in the last few years, Mr Sobie said.

Not all are convinced, though, that long-haul budget carriers can survive in the long term. Aviation history is littered with those who tried but failed.

Casualties include Hong Kong-based Oasis from the early 2000s and Viva Macau, which started long-haul operations about a decade ago. Both no longer exist.

Unlike short-haul budget carriers that make money driving traveller volumes with short flights, quick turnarounds and high aircraft utilisation rates, longer flights do not enjoy the same benefits.

Still, Norwegian, Jetstar, AirAsia X and SIA's Scoot have managed to make the business work, even if tough times have seen red numbers in the books and routes being dropped from time to time.

Others are keen to emulate Norwegian, said Mr Shukor Yusof, aviation analyst at Endau Analytics.

IAG, owner of British Airways, has launched Level, a new budget long-haul airline that would initially fly to Los Angeles, Oakland, Buenos Aires and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic from next month. Icelandic discount carrier WOW Air has said it would go transatlantic from July.

Two key factors are driving the revival of such carriers - sub-US$50 oil prices per barrel for a few years now and new fuel-efficient planes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus 350.

Mr Shukor said: "We've said before that low-cost, long-haul isn't impossible, but it's just very, very tricky to succeed."

Integrating their short-haul and long-haul operations have also helped AirAsia X and Jetstar, said Mr Kent Yar, who heads the aerospace and aviation team at Cornerstone Global Partners. More than eight in 10 of AirAsia X's passengers connect on other carriers within the group, the airline has said.

Mr Abbas Ismail, course manager of aviation management and services at Temasek Polytechnic, said: "This is a cyclical business. The economy has improved, fuel prices have lowered, capacity has reduced, so low-cost carriers are filling the gap that the full-service airlines have left behind in their eagerness to cut capacity during the downturn."

He warned though that if fuel prices rise, long-haul budget carriers could cut services again.

Mr Chuck Ng, 47, an information technology manager who has flown budget carriers from New Zealand and Australia to Singapore, said that while it means fewer frills, the experience can be better than flying with some "not very good" full-service airlines.

While the difference in fares may not always be significant, especially when full-service airlines dangle discounts, "I always try and support budget carriers", he said.

"If not for them, I don't think full-service airlines would ever offer attractive discounts," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline Singapore to London and back for $630. Subscribe