Primera Air and the Emergence of Low-Cost Narrow Body Transatlantic Flights

A few weeks ago, I got a message from a friend. She was inquiring about this cheap ticket she’d found on Primera Air — a $300 round trip fare to England next summer. As Primera had recently announced routes from Boston to the English destinations of Birmingham and London Stansted, I knew the basics of the carrier, which I relayed to her. My advice was essentially this: you can’t go wrong for that price, but be warned: you’ll have to pay extra for pretty much everything aside from a seat and a carry-on bag. This didn’t deter her, and she (and her husband and in-laws) will be traveling on Primera next summer.

As is often the case when I have an interaction with a friend regarding plane ticket advice, I ended up thinking about this quite a bit more after the fact. I began to realize that we are entering a new era where airlines are beginning to use aircraft that were very much for short-haul flights on transatlantic routes, such as Primera using the Airbus A321neo (new engine option) on routes between the U.S and the U.K. Down the road, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of “smaller” cities — places where it wouldn’t have been economical for an airline to start long-haul flights — begin to acquire service to places across the pond.

The other thing I realized is that there seems to be some ambiguity around what it means to buy a transatlantic ticket on these low-cost carriers. As such, I figured it might make sense to dispel what it does include, what it doesn’t, and how you can work around (and hopefully avoid) the ancillary fees.

First things first, however — let’s have a look at how we got to this point.

Transatlantic Prices Have Gone Down

In the last few years, transatlantic flights have become exponentially cheaper. When I went to London in 2014 on British Airways, I paid a $952 round trip base fare ($1,034 total with window seat reservations), which was actually a pretty good price at the time. This spring, again going to London on British Airways, I paid a $505 round trip base fare, and $594.20 in total with window seat reservations. In two-and-a-half years, the price I paid — for the same route on the same carrier — dropped by more than $400.

There are a number of factors that have gone into this change, including Brexit, low fuel prices, and more efficient aircraft. However, there’s another factor that likely played a role: new competition from low-cost carriers.

With a number of round trip fares around $300, Norwegian Air Shuttle has made its name as the most well-known low-cost option between the U.S. and Europe. WOW Air and Icelandair have both made the Iceland Stopover quite popular, of course, and LEVEL emerged this year with cheap flights from Barcelona, too, but Norwegian really pioneered the emergence of the low-cost transatlantic sector.

This emergence has had a notable impact across the airline industry. Fearing market share loss, the legacy carriers have been forced to act. Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group (IAG), which is the parent company of legacy airlines such as Aer Lingus, British Airways, and Iberia, once scoffed at the threat of low-cost carriers on transatlantic routes. Walsh believed that four hours was the maximum that passengers would care to fly on a low-cost carrier, one which charged for bags, meals, and the like. However, Walsh has admitted that Norwegian has sent a clear message: people are willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort for the right price. Given that Aer Lingus and BA have dropped their ticket prices in transatlantic markets, and IAG launched LEVEL in March of this year, it’s evident that the impact of new competition undercutting the prices of the legacies has resulted in a new era — where the price of a ticket to France isn’t much different than going to Florida.

Primera, meanwhile, has been around for a few years, but has yet to launch its transatlantic operations, which are scheduled to begin in 2018. And while it doesn’t appear to want to match Norwegian in creating a low-cost transatlantic empire, it will certainly provide some extra competition on these transatlantic routes.

Narrow Body Transatlantic Flights Are Taking Off

Until this year, it was incredibly uncommon for any narrow body that wasn’t a Boeing 757 to be flying transatlantic. There were a few exceptions: Scandinavian Airlines flew its specially-configured 737-700 between Copenhagen and Boston, and Canadian carrier WestJet has started seasonal 737 services from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Dublin and London Gatwick. However, these were all unique cases in which either a specially-configured aircraft (the Scandinavian 737 has 86 seats, meaning it requires less fuel) or a unique distance (the distance from St. John’s to Dublin, for example, is only 2,042 miles — less than New York to LA).

This isn’t to say that narrow bodies like the new generation 737s (the -700, -800, and -900 models) and A321 aren’t capable of making it across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe. In fact, they quite often do so when an aircraft is delivered to an airline from the factory. jetBlue, for example, sometimes flies their A321s from Hamburg, Germany to Portland, Maine, a 3,538 mile journey, on delivery flights in order to stop and refuel on their way to having their cabins configured (TVs installed/etc.) in Greensboro, North Carolina.

When these planes did cross the ocean with passengers, however, they had long had to do so with payload restrictions. Norwegian, for example, could only have 150 passengers on board its 737-800, even though the aircraft has 186 seats. Add in the factor of headwinds, and you’ll see an aircraft with a 3,500 mile range (such as an A320) struggle to make it, say, 3,000 miles. Quite literally, the headwinds of the jetstream can take hundreds of miles off a plane’s range, which is why so many carriers avoided using “normal” short-haul planes on transatlantic routes even if they “technically” had the range to do it. Moreover, a related factor is that overhead costs (such as the cost of fuel and the high landing fees at major airports) had long made it imperative for airlines to use large planes (more seats = more passengers = more money) in order to ensure profitability.

This year, however, all of that changed. In June, Norwegian took delivery of its first 737 MAX 8, an improved 737 with improved aerodynamics, more efficient engines, and an improved range. This enabled the carrier to begin transatlantic service between Providence, Rhode Island and places like Cork, Ireland — free of payload restrictions. Of course, given that Norwegian has not yet taken delivery of all of the MAX aircraft it intends to use, some 737-800s are still operating payload-restricted transatlantic flights. However, the first Norwegian MAX made it clear: airlines can operate long-haul transatlantic flights on narrow body aircraft.

This isn’t to say that these flights won’t have their issues. As I’ve noted before, a number of westbound 757s — those battling headwinds from the jetstream — have been forced to divert short of their final destination to refuel in recent years. And while such incidents are much less likely for long-haul aircraft, narrow body planes will continue to occasionally suffer this fuel-burning fate during the winter. That being said, if the introduction of these planes on transatlantic routes can open a number of new destinations, I think the benefits will have outweighed the costs.

Primera: How does it compare?

While its flights will utilize an Airbus rather than Boeing, Primera will be the second low-cost carrier to enter the space from flying from the U.S. to the U.K. with non-payload restricted aircraft. Much like the 737 MAX, the A321neo is an upgrade on an aircraft that has been popular for years. And though a number of carriers thinking about entering the transatlantic market (such as jetBlue) are keen to wait for the A321LR — which will be even more suited to handle these long-haul flights — to come out, Primera has decided to take the plunge in becoming the first carrier to use an Airbus NEO aircraft on transatlantic flights.

As expected with narrow body aircraft, things may feel a bit tight — although the approximately 17 inches of seat width are pretty standard as far as economy goes, both for narrow body and wide body aircraft. Regarding pitch, Primera’s seats will have approximately 30 inches. This isn’t much, but it’s pretty much the same as the Norwegian 737s, and only an inch less than full-service legacies like Aer Lingus and British Airways. All told, it should be pretty much the same as what you’d experience on a domestic flight within the United States — not incredibly comfortable, but not unbearable by any means.

As far as amenities go, there will be no seatback TVs, but Wi-Fi will be available for a fee. The TVs are the one thing that I feel Primera is lacking — I’ve only ever flown on Norwegian’s 787s (both the 787-8 and 787-9), all of which have seatback TVs — although it should be noted that Norwegian’s 737 MAX 8 does not have TVs, either, so the like-for-like comparison is relatively similar.

As far as fees go, Primera has plenty of them. Here’s a quick summary of what it lists on its website (scroll to the bottom for transatlantic flights):

  • Seat selection from $39.99 per seat
  • Checked bags from $44.99 (max 23 kg/50 lbs.)
  • Meals from $39.99

For comparison, here’s a list of Norwegian’s fees:

  • Seat selection from $45 per seat
  • Checked bags from $45
  • Meals from $45
How do you avoid the fees?

As you can see, that cheap ticket can get a lot more expensive really quickly. Some of you might look at that list and understandably balk. However, there are a number of ways you can plan ahead and save money:

  • Buy a meal before your flight at the airport! I would much, much rather eat a nice meal at the airport than pay $45 for airline food. Even if you spend $25 on steak at TGI Friday’s, you’re still saving $20 versus buying a meal on the plane. And given you’ll be sitting for the next six or so hours, you’re not likely to get hungry!
  • Both Primera and Norwegian do (unlike, say, Spirit Airlines) give you one carry-on bag with the purchase of your ticket. A larger number of rolling suitcases (also called roller-boards) can fit in the overhead lockers — so pack as densely as you can.
  • Determine whether you feel you need that window or aisle seat (or, if you’re traveling with company, determine whether you need to sit next to each other). I, personally, prefer a window, so that extra money is worth it to me — but many don’t care.
Know what you’re getting into

My words of advice to my friend went something like this: that’s an excellent price, by all means go for it, but just don’t be surprised that this might be a bit “different” than your previous transatlantic flights. She acknowledged as much, and was able to get a solid deal.

Ultimately, that’s what it boils down to. In some cases, people book these really cheap tickets to Europe, thinking they just beat the system and got an absolute steal. Depending on your preferences, this may be true, as you wouldn’t have had a choice whether or not to pay (bundled in your ticket) for a meal, baggage, and the like a few years ago. However, some are quite surprised when they have to pay for bags, meal, and seat selection, and feel like they got ripped off. Again, that may be an understandable feeling if you thought you were paying $300 for something that ends up costing you (all amenities included) over $500.

That being said, there are ways to avoid fees while still making the most of your experience. Pack light (or “tight”), have a nice meal before you get on the plane, and, if possible, try to be flexible about where you sit. Of course, I’m certainly not one to talk on that last fragment, as I prefer the window seat, but I am willing to pay that extra money because it is worth it to me. That, ultimately, is what it boils down to — determine what you believe is worth paying, and you’ll likely have a much more fun and predictable journey.