Touchdown: First Scheduled British Airways A380 Arrives in Boston

Anticipation of the Airbus

Soaring over a crowd of around 30 people on Castle Island, the first scheduled British Airways Airbus A380 arrived at Boston Logan this afternoon. Incidentally, it touched down on Runway 4R – which was the same runway that the Boeing 747 I was on landed on in 2014 – at around 1:30 p.m.

Speedbird 213 super soaring towards Runway 4R.

Last July, when the news first broke that BA would be flying its A380s from Boston to London Heathrow in 2017, I was hesitant to put much stock in it. Things change in the aviation world all the time, and so while that didn’t stop me from writing a post on it, I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s a difference between reporting the news and buying into it.

Initially, my skepticism seemed to be well-founded: in August, BA mysteriously pulled its scheduled deployment of the aircraft, with the apparent culprit being the delayed renovation of Terminal E. At that point, I thought that the delay was due to “typical Massachusetts construction,” as we often see construction projects cost more and take longer than anticipated (e.g. the Big Dig).

However, September saw BA reinstate its plans to launch A380 service to Logan, with the new start date scheduled for a month after the original planned introduction. And while the new schedule has the aircraft visiting only three days per week (Sunday, Monday, and Friday) as opposed to the original schedule which had it lined up to come four times per week (Thursday through Sunday), it appeared that the new timeline took into account the construction of the A380-capable gates and new Terminal E lounge.

March 26, 2017

Even though Emirates holds the distinction of having flown the first scheduled A380 to Boston – a one-off flight exactly two months before this one – BA is the first carrier to land a regularly-scheduled A380 in Boston.

On multiple occasions, I have said that I prefer the 747– and particularly BA’s 747s – to the A380. While that still holds true, I have developed a newfound admiration for the A380, particularly after traveling on it in China and experiencing how modern and efficient it is, and so I went to see the maiden arrival – operated by G-XLEE as BA213 – this afternoon (the aircraft will return to London tonight as BA212).

I arrived around 20 minutes before the aircraft was scheduled to land, and was surprised to find that there were a number of onlookers waiting with their cameras, phones, and scanners. I got out my phone to open Flightradar24, and saw that the aircraft was beginning its downwind leg.

 

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Visible, but not much detail here.

We continued to track G-XLEE, both visually and with FR24. Soon enough, it was starting its final approach.

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On final.

As it got closer, the sense went from ‘this is going to happen’ to ‘this is really happening.’ Correspondingly, the plane went from being a faraway object that was barely visible to an approaching aircraft that revealed more and more detail by the second.

Having disappeared from our vision over the shipyard, the aircraft touched down on 4R, arriving at the gate 10 minutes after the tires hit the tarmac. As such, the long-anticipated event was completed.

Looking Forward

With this arrival, Boston has seen a scheduled BA A380 before New York JFK. And while this is somewhat surprising given that JFK-LHR is the busiest transatlantic route in the world and that BA is the dominant carrier on that route, there are actually a few explanations for this seemingly counterintuitive circumstance.

Moreover, the arrival of the A380 does not mean that BA will stop sending 747s to Boston. Unlike some other U.S. destinations (such as San Francisco and Washington D.C.) where BA used to send 747s but now mostly sends A380s and 777s, BA will likely continue to fly the 747 to Boston alongside the A380 for quite some time. Today is a perfect example: while BA213 and BA212 are operated by an A380, BA203 and BA202 are being flown by a 747.

Why is this?

Well, in addition to boasting good load factors on its BOS-LHR route, which means that it can fill a large number of seats, BA recently retrofitted a portion of its 747 fleet with a modernized cabin and more business class seats. Given that BOS-LHR is a route with high “premium” demand (e.g. a large number of first and business class travelers), the retrofitted aircraft still have a decent amount of life left in them, and that more than 790,000 people traveled between Logan and London Heathrow last year, it makes sense that Boston as a destination can support two four-engine, double-decker planes in the same day.

Most of all, I’m curious to know which of Logan’s runways the A380 uses. While the “main” runways – 4R/22L and 15R/33L – are obviously capable of handling an A380, I am curious to see if the two “supporting” runways – 4L/22R and 9/27 – will see any A380 action. Performance-wise, I think it’s possible, as the A380 has superior takeoff performance to the 747 and I have observed a number of 747s use 4L/22R and 9/27, but I can’t say for sure.

Despite a cloudy day, the sight of the Superjumbo was a bright spot on this particular Sunday. With any luck, there will be many more to come.

Norwegian Puts Providence, Hartford, Newburgh Flights on Sale

Norwegian Air International, the Irish subsidiary of Norwegian Air Shuttle, recently announced its intentions to begin flights to Hartford, CT, Newburgh, NY, and Providence, RI.

After much controversy, including allegations from U.S. bodies such as the ALPA that Norwegian was setting up a “flag of convenience” in Ireland, the USDOT belatedly approved Norwegian’s application in early December 2016. Yet it was more than two months before the carrier finally put its flights on sale – with limited seats going for as low as $65 one way – on February 23, 2017.

The flights will be operated by Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on these routes:

Providence, RI to:

  • Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Cork, Ireland
  • Dublin, Ireland
  • Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Shannon, Ireland

Hartford, CT to Edinburgh, Scotland

Newburgh, NY to:

  • Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Dublin, Ireland
  • Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Shannon, Ireland

Shortly after receiving USDOT approval, Norwegian announced that, unlike its Boeing 787-800 flights to Copenhagen, London Gatwick, and Oslo, it didn’t plan to utilize Boston Logan and New York JFK. Using a 737 MAX – which has significantly less capacity than a 787-800 – “wouldn’t be profitable” at those airports, as they incur high operation fees that would need to be offset by high ticket prices given the 737 MAX’s relative capacity. However, by utilizing smaller alternative airports rather than major airports, Norwegian predicts that it will minimize overhead (through less and lower fees) and pass on savings to its customers.

Having already chosen Newburgh as its alternative option for the Tri-State Area, Norwegian announced its intention to choose between T.F. Green in Providence and Portsmouth, NH’s Portsmouth International at Pease. I opined that the logical choice would be Providence, as it boasts a significantly more populated catchment area, easy public transport, and much better connection potential. While Pease has a less-congested airport that could be home to a dedicated operation, the weight of the factors that favor Providence seemed to make the Rhode Island capital the most likely candidate.

Meanwhile, Hartford is an interesting case. Though not mentioned in the initial list of potential Norwegian destinations, the Connecticut capital is one of the largest cities in New England. While its catchment area doesn’t boast the same population as that of Providence’s, Bradley International is a convenient option for many Western Massachusetts travelers, particularly those in the vicinity of I-91.

Moreover, Bradley recently resurrected transatlantic service with Aer Lingus service to Dublin on 757-200s – a city and airline combination that I predicted when it was first rumored that Bradley had landed transatlantic service. And though it was backed by guarantees from the Connecticut government, it appears that the route has done well enough to serve as an indication that transatlantic service is a viable option. Thus, adding another city to Hartford’s growing list of destinations is perhaps a prudent move, particularly considering the minimal risk and low overhead costs of inaugurating a single 737 MAX route rather than the plethora of flights that will start serving Newburgh and Providence.

While there is significant excitement surrounding these new developments, a number of uncertainties remain. Above all, I’ve profiled what I think are the two major questions:

1. Will these fares be enough to generate new demand? Norwegian consistently speaks about its belief that it won’t just attract existing travelers, but will encourage people who haven’t previously ventured overseas to travel to Europe, much in the same way that the 747 created a surplus of supply that made air travel cheaper in the 1970s.

2. Are European travelers willing to fly into alternate airports that are an hour away from the cities they serve? While airports like JFK and Heathrow are a bit far from downtown New York and London, respectively, they are much closer to their respective downtowns than Newburgh or Luton. I would assume that Americans flying to London would, for example, be reticent to fly into Luton instead of Heathrow, so I am curious if Europeans will be equally leery, particularly given the public transit quality (or lack thereof) in the United States.

I am rather skeptical on both fronts, but I can’t say that I have a genuine prediction for how these routes will perform. Like many others, I am intrigued to see how it all plays out.

What’s Cooking With British Airways? BA Eliminating Complimentary Food in Coach on European Flights

As documented in the press recently, British Airways has been taking some heat for launching its buy-on-board program for – previously free – food and drink on domestic and European flights.

In America, many of us are too young to remember the days when the quality of airline food was akin that of a catered meal. In fact, this Forbes article outlines that finding ways to create new revenue streams has been a “sport” that airlines have engaged in for decades, as former American Airlines CEO Robert “Bob” Crandall found that he could save $100,000 annually by removing olives from the salads that the carrier served. Perhaps that decision, made in the 1980s, heralded the beginning of the end of luxurious airline service in coach.

Back to the subject at hand: while I was initially disgusted at the prospect of a Skytrax four-star airline charging for food, I’ve come to realize that BA is in a predicament which not many other European carriers find themselves in. This is because Norwegian Air Shuttle has been selling extremely low fares on transatlantic routes between a major U.K. airport – London Gatwick – and a variety of U.S. cities, including Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York JFK, Oakland, and Orlando.

Even so, BA will still likely remain preferred by the majority of business and first class passengers, as BA Chief Executive Alex Cruz claims Norwegian’s low fares “create new demand,” thereby implying that the majority of Norwegian travelers are tourists who might not have had the desire to travel without such low fares. Yet through offering fares that are markedly lower than anything BA had offered up to this point, Norwegian is – by proxy – threatening BA’s superiority at not just Gatwick but also Heathrow, as some British passengers may choose to bypass the busier Heathrow for Gatwick in favor of lower fares and a smaller airport.

Perhaps I’m being too general in saying this, but I believe that the majority of foreign airlines have better on-board service and offerings than American carriers, particularly on long-haul flights, but also on short-haul flights. Even China Eastern Airlines – a carrier which is majority-owned by the Chinese government – serves meals in economy class on its domestic flights between Beijing and Shanghai, something that American Airlines doesn’t even do for its transcontinental routes. So when BA announced this decision, I have to say I had to evaluate whether it was in danger of letting its reputation dwindle to the standard which we see in America – the “Big 3” American carriers (American, Delta, and United) are labeled three-star airlines by Skytrax; BA is a four-star carrier.

Despite my fear, which may well be premature, BA’s need to lower prices is evident. With that in mind, the most effective way to lower prices while still maintaining a healthy profit margin is to trim expenses. In addition to doing this through eliminating economy class meal service on European flights, BA has started to make changes on its long-haul flights, too, as it eliminated the second of two meals served on westbound transatlantic flights. Of course, this still puts it a cut above Norwegian in that respect, as the latter doesn’t offer any complimentary food or drink on its long-haul flights, but it’s a notable reduction nonetheless.

BA will likely be judged upon whether it can maintain its quality reputation in the face of reducing its offerings. Whether that is attainable remains to be seen.

Dispirited Experiences: What makes Spirit so undesirable?

I’ve flown Spirit Airlines twice – once to Chicago O’Hare, once to Baltimore. Both times, I got on the outbound leg of my trip, flew to my destination, and had no complaints.

Unfortunately, the return legs of both trips proved to be much less pleasant.

On the trip back from Chicago, my flight was delayed by an hour. Coming back from Baltimore, it was 2 ½ hours. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.

The Spirit Hallmarks

Spirit brands itself as an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC). And in certain instances, Spirit’s prices are less than those of a number of carriers. However, I have found a number of times where American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, jetBlue, and United Airlines have beaten Spirit’s offering by some distance. As a result, I don’t really buy Spirit’s implicit M.O. of “the reason we provide (virtually) zero amenities is so we can deliver the cheapest fares.” They’ve even explained that they charge for water because putting water on the plane makes the plane weigh more, thus leading to the need for more fuel and increased fuel expenses. Given that a variety of airlines have started to charge for refreshments, I get it, but a glass of water is different than a can of soda – I don’t know of any other carrier that charges for the former.

Getting Carried Away

In an era where airlines have come under increased scrutiny for charging checked bag fees, Spirit has taken it one step further, as the carrier charges for carry-on bags. To an extent, I don’t mind this. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me to see oblivious people trying to stuff their over-sized carry-on into the overhead bin. At the same time, I think charging for carry-ons is a little excessive, and could perhaps be the beginning of an avalanche of ancillary fees.

Things Aren’t Always What they Seem

Ultimately, Spirit’s lack of amenities is done in the name of frugality – it certainly doesn’t intend to be malevolent. In fact, the carrier openly acknowledges its lack of amenities, telling passengers that a lack of frills is how the carrier is able to sustain its business model. However, I can’t say that I buy this, either. For example, jetBlue can afford to provide passengers with free refreshments, free seat selection, free Wi-Fi, and free DirecTV. I can’t say I comprehend why Spirit feels the need to do without TVs, Wi-Fi, or an adequately-sized tray table.

Of course, my sample size may of Spirit experiences be small. Moreover, I do not doubt there are passengers who fly Spirit without delays. However, Spirit’s no-frills rationale seems flawed, particularly considering the existence of jetBlue and Southwest Airlines. After all, these two low-cost carriers are the two highest-ranked U.S. carriers in the J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction rankings. Maybe if Spirit focused more on service, it would be able to rid itself its bad reputation.

Cork Popped: NAX to pick from PSM and PVD as alternatives to BOS

Just days after Norwegian received DOT approval for flights between Boston Logan and Cork, Ireland, the carrier made a big announcement. Instead of flying out of Logan, it will fly its Boeing 737-800s out of either Portsmouth, NH or Providence, RI. Norwegian will continue to operate 787s between Boston and Copenhagen, London Gatwick, and Oslo.

The chosen location would be the carrier’s second base to open in the U.S., after the announcement that NAX would open a base at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, NY (SWF), around an hour north of New York City.

The Reasoning

Norwegian’s explanation for its decision is quite interesting, in my view. “To operate the Boeing 737s … from a primary airport [such as Boston] becomes much more expensive with a small aircraft type than a larger aircraft type due to limited passenger numbers,” Norwegian spokesman Anders Lindstrom said.

A Cost-Benefit Analysis

While both airports are approximately an hour from Boston, each has its own unique advantages.

Portsmouth’s advantages:

  • Pease has just one airline who operates scheduled service to the airport – Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier whose focus is on domestic operations.
  • Less-congested city (approximately 30,000 people vs. 100,000)
  • Close to Interstate 95
  • Hourly bus service to Boston

Providence’s advantages:

  • It would appear that the catchment area for potential passengers is much larger than Pease
  • MBTA Commuter Rail service to Boston
  • Close to Interstate 95
  • Better potential for connections from other airlines
A Closer Look

There is some business sense in Norwegian’s decision. Certainly, there’s something to be said for lower operating costs, especially considering the airline’s low-cost model. Yet it remains to be seen if passengers are willing to travel an hour or more just to save a few bucks. This will be pertinent, particularly considering the extensive number of ancillary fees that Norwegian charges. Moreover, while negotiations have been going on for some time, it is a bit perplexing that Norwegian waited so long to make this declaration.

Of course, it could well be that these flights are a hit, and are the start of a big transformation. Who knows!

The Saga is Over: Norwegian gets approval for Boston-Cork flights

After what seemed like an eternity, Norwegian Air International has finally received USDOT approval to start flights between Boston and Cork, Ireland. Norwegian will fly Boeing 737-800 aircraft between the two cities. This aircraft is smaller than the 787s it currently flies between Boston and Copenhagen, London Gatwick, and Oslo.

The controversial decision – generally hailed within the European Union and condemned within the United States – brings the end of a three-year saga. During that time, Norwegian sought approval for the route, saw its application delayed, and threatened arbitration.

Reaction

Cork Airport officials are predictably ecstatic. As the second-largest city in Ireland, this will be a huge boon to residents and businesses in the area.

A subsidiary of Norwegian Air Shuttle, Norwegian Air International was established in Ireland in 2014. This enable the carrier to utilize certain benefits that carriers based in the European Union receive. Particularly, NAI being in Ireland enables the carrier to utilize the “open skies” agreement. Until now, Norwegian has only been able to serve approved destinations. By establishing a headquarters within the E.U., Norwegian is able to increase the scope of its network.

The Other Side of the Pond

However, extensive U.S.-based opposition means that things have not gone so smoothly for NAI.  The main claim from a variety of U.S. aviation and government officials was that Norwegian has gained an unfair competitive advantage by underpaying pilots – who are allegedly employed under Asian contracts – and that its establishment in Ireland is simply a flag of convenience designed to get around labor laws.

Predictably, Norwegian denies these allegations. It says Norwegian operates under the labour laws of the country in which a crew lives. Moreover, Norwegian alleges that its expansion into U.S. airports is simply good for consumers. It believes U.S. competitors are afraid of the increased competition these Norwegian routes would bring.

Reflections

While I often profile Norweigan flights in Hump Day Fare Hacks and other parts of Speedbird Spotter, I believe that both sides have compelling points, so I can’t say whether this is “good” or “bad” for U.S. aviation. What I can say, though, is that it is certainly good for travelers who care about ticket price.

The Norwegian Effect: How NAX is a flight price game changer

If you’ve followed Hump Day Fare Hacks, you’ll know that I’ve begun tabulating the Norwegian Index, which is the average price (expressed in dollars) of all the Norwegian Air Shuttle flights profiled in a given week. And though it may seem to be a somewhat confusing metric, its ultimate purpose is to display the median price of low-cost transatlantic flights between the U.S. and Europe. Of course, it’s not an exact science, but it does give a relatively good indication of where the market is at.

What it doesn’t reflect, however, is the impact that low-cost carriers like Norwegian are having on the transatlantic market as a whole.

As this USA Today article points out, British Airways recently added three new U.S. destinations to its long-haul route network: Ft. Lauderdale, New Orleans, and Oakland. And while the new service between London Heathrow and the Louisiana city is indeed a revival of a former route flown by the carrier, albeit one involving London’s Gatwick Airport that flew in decades past, that had significant potential for tourism, the other two were seen to be very much competitive counterplays – assumptions that were confirmed by Willie Walsh, the CEO of International Airlines Group (IAG) which owns BA.

That counterplay was indeed a strategic calculation to Norwegian’s presence on both the LGW-FLL and LGW-OAK routes. Walsh said that, initially, Norwegian wasn’t seen to be a veritable competitor to legacy carriers in the transatlantic space, noting that, a decade ago, there was significant debate over whether passengers would want to fly on a “no-frills” airline for more than four hours. Summarily, Walsh explained that the answer is a veritable yes, saying that “[Norwegian has] clearly been able to demonstrate that there is a market there [and] we’re responding competitively.”

The last part of Walsh’s statement is perhaps the most poignant part. It should be noted that while BA already serves South Florida (MIA-LHR) and the Bay Area (SFO-LHR), its foray into Ft. Lauderdale and Oakland means that the British flag carrier is entering new cities, underscoring that Norwegian is no longer being seen as a flash-in-the-pan as far as transatlantic competition is concerned in particular cities where BA doesn’t currently have a presence.

Yet that’s not the end of the story: it appears that Norwegian’s impact goes even further, as it has forced BA’s hand in cities where the carrier already has service. For example, Norwegian’s five times weekly BOS-LGW route pales in comparison to BA’s three BOS-LHR flights per day. However, the introduction of Norwegian has decreased BA’s dominance in a very competitive transatlantic market – one which also features Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic Airways. As I profiled this summer, BA is planning to  introduce the  Airbus A380 on its BOS-LHR route starting next March, which will likely – all other things equal – increase supply and drive down prices even further. Of course, there are likely a number of reasons that BA’s fares have fallen on this particular route – Brexit, low fuel costs, the introduction of the Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner on a rotation, and so on – and there are a likely a number of additional factors that have motivated BA to bring the A380 to Boston, many of which I examined. Yet I think Boston is an excellent example of the impact Norwegian has had on BA fares.

Additionally, there’s the element of ticket prices. Anecdotally speaking, BA has decreased prices across the board in the past six months or so. And while Brexit, falling fuel costs, and increasingly efficient aircraft are all likely playing important roles in this development, it would also appear that Norwegian’s ability to offer fares for extremely low prices is having perhaps the biggest impact.

Much like the way that Southwest and jetBlue have had veritable effects on the prices of domestic flights, Norwegian – through increasing competition in markets which weren’t extremely competitive – has seemingly helped to drive down the price of transatlantic flights. Yet although the carrier has endured significant scrutiny in its efforts to start new routes due to myriad factors, I don’t think any of us travelers can complain about cheaper transatlantic flights.