Bjorn Kjos, chief executive of an airline that had a nightmare experience with its first two 787s last year, could now moonlight as a salesman for the Dreamliner.
Norwegian Air, his new international low-cost carrier, now has a fleet of seven Dreamliners that he’s flying on very long routes such as London to Bangkok and back. With minimal down time at each end, that’s up to 18 hours flying in a day.
“The Dreamliner is the first airplane built to fly such high utilization. It’s performing to it,” said Kjos. “It’s going better and better actually.”
Kjos is a former Norwegian Air Force fighter pilot, who patrolled his country’s air space during the Cold War, intercepting Russian jets in a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
After eight years in the military, he got a law degree and later fell into running a small regional airline “more or less by accident,” he said.
Today, Norwegian Air is a very successful low-cost carrier flying all around Europe. It’s long-haul unit, Norwegian Air International, is pioneering the use of the 787 to do for international travel what Southwest Airlines did for U.S. domestic air travel with the 737.
In Farnborough Tuesday, Kjos accepted an award for Norwegian’s domestic unit as “the best low-cost airline in Europe,” in the highly regarded annual Skytrax “passenger choice” awards.
In an interview afterward, before he visited the Boeing chalet, Kjos recalled that he was forced to ground the first two 787s he got last summer after repeated software glitches.
After he complained forcefully and publicly about serious flight delays last September, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner flew to Oslo and offered Kjos his personal assurance that Boeing would provide all the necessary technical support.
Boeing delivered on that promise. A team of engineers and mechanics went through the problematic airplanes and upgraded them. They later added various modifications that were standard on the later aircraft, Kjos said.
There were three further serious 787 service delays at the end of last year, but those were not 787-specific problems, and Kjos is now highly satisfied.
“We have a very good relationship with Boeing,” he said.
The A330neo that Airbus launched Monday is a rival to the 787 for long-haul low-cost carriers. On Tuesday, Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia placed a big order for 50 of the A330-900neo models, at a list price of more than $13 billion.
Kjos said he thinks that Airbus jet “will be a very good competitor,” but he’s content to stick with the Dreamliner.
Contrary to claims by Airbus, he said. “The 787-8 will have better fuel burn. The 787-8 is much lighter, and weight is very crucial to fuel burn.”
As for the notion that Airbus might undercut the 787 on pricing of the A330neo, he said that for international airlines “45 to 50 percent of your operating cost is fuel” and the difference in the cost of buying the two planes won’t make up for a big deficit in fuel efficiency.
U.S. political obstacles
Kjos’s long-haul operation today faces bureaucratic issues rather than mechanical ones.
There is a so-called Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and the European Union that was extended to include Norway (not an EU country), so Norwegian already can fly from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in the U.S.
But equivalent agreements between the EU and Asian countries don’t include Norway.
So with plans to fly globally and not wanting restrictions on his flights to Asia, Kjos set up Norwegian Air International in Ireland, an EU member country with no restrictions on flights to Asia. Basically, he now needs the U.S. to accept his company’s status as an Irish airline, not a Norwegian one.
With strong political opposition from U.S. carriers and unions, almost eight months after applying to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation for recognition of his European Union airplane operating license, he’s still waiting for a decision.
Despite the stalled process and the political opposition, Kjos remains optimistic.
“We fulfill all the requirements forgoing that license. I think in due time we will get it,” Kjos said. “We have an operational aircraft operating certificate with the European union. They are actually saying no to a European Union carrier.”
In the Open Skies treaty between the U.S. and E.U signed in 2007 , the U.S. airlines were widely seen as the main winners, granted rights to fly between cities within Europe.
If the U.S rejects Norwegian’s application, Kjos said, “they will kill the Open Skies treaty.”