Norwegian Air executive: Passengers like paying for extras

Norwegian Air has a popular premium economy section. Photo: Norwegian. 

Norwegian Air has a popular premium economy section. Photo: Norwegian. 

Norwegian Air charges for everything, from checked bags to onboard meals to advanced seat assignments. You might think passengers would complain, but recently I spoke with the airline's chief commercial officer, and he said travelers have gotten used to the new normal. 

"People can choose what they want to have," Norwegian's Thomas Ramdahl told me. "Ancillary fees are so common now. I think the biggest complaint we get is when we don't have enough meals on board to sell."

Not having food is partly by design, because Norwegian prefers passengers pay for meals in advance on the carrier's website. There are fewer wasted meals that way, which helps the airline save money.

On long-haul Boeing 787 flights to Europe, including from Los Angeles and New York, Ramdahl said the most popular elements Norwegian sells are for premium products. On most airlines, customers might not be able to buy a last minute upgrade,  or lounge access or a fast-track security pass. Either they're not sold, or they're too expensive. But Norwegian tries to set more reasonable prices for premium products. 

The 787 premium cabin has been especially sought after, Ramdahl said. While it is not quite international business class, seats are roomier than standard U.S. domestic first class version, with Norwegian's offering 19-inch wide seats with 46 inches of pitch.  As a point of comparison, Delta has 21-inch seats with 38 inches of pitch on its Boeing 737-800s that fly domestic routes. 

I know many blog readers regularly fly in international business and first class. You are probably not impressed by Norwegian's premium cabin. But remember, most of Norwegian's customers have never sat anywhere but coach. The fact that they can try a much better seat for a reasonable price is a big deal. They love it. 

"There's a great value," Ramdahl said. "[Passengers] are surprised by how good the product is when they get on board. It's a higher standard compared to a regular premium economy."

But don't set standards too high. While Norwegian feeds you for free in premium economy - and I hear the food is not bad - you won't see many of the costly extras other airlines roll out in business or first class.  "We are trying to have a product similar to business class but without the porcelain and the glass and everything," Ramdahl said. Norwegian sticks with plastic. It is much cheaper, and there are no concerns about having to send stemware out to get it cleaned. 

While Norwegian plans to keep upselling and levying fees, there's one fee the airline is not considering. Norwegian charges for checked bags, but it gives passengers a free carry-on bag weighing 11 kilos, or about 24 pounds. This is generous. Iceland's Wow Air, another discount carrier that flies Americans to Europe, only allows free carry-ons of up to five kilos, or about 11 pounds.  Ramdahl said Norwegian has no plans to copy its competitor. 

Have you flown Norwegian? How was it?