One of the biggest dramas when flying as a larger (taller or wider, I’m both) person is..well.. flying. Unless you can find the thousands of dollars / pounds / whatever for a business or first class seat, it’s utter hell. Until Norwegian barged into the market promising space beyond compare in their premium class, that is. Note – premium, not premium economy or business. This is marketed as its own class, and for good reason – it’s not economy and it’s certainly not a modern business class. For your money (we paid £1000/$1300 return, each) you’re allowed two 20kg / 44lb bags and a carry-on which will fit nicely into the huge overhead bins (unless you’re in 1 or 2 D and E which don’t have them).
Norwegian has two fleets – one of 737s which seems to be suitable only for the slender traveler with removable lower legs, and one of 787 “Dreamliners” which adds a Premium section. It is upon this Premium section that we’ll concentrate today.
If you’ve ever flown, to pick two at random, Delta or British Airways and stumped up the cash for the premium economy product that they seem to be guiding you towards with ever smaller economy seats, then you probably been mildly disappointed by how much extra space you got for several hundred extra dollars, especially on their older fleets (BA’s A380 looks ok). Well, Norwegian is different, and in a good way!
We flew from London’s Gatwick airport to Los Angeles and returned two weeks later. Gatwick is a good choice for a Low-Cost Carrier (LCC) as it benefits from not being as bad as the thoroughly depressing Luton and not as endlessly far away as Stansted, both of which have set themselves up as very firmly low-cost / holiday airports. Gatwick is still somewhat out of the way compared to Heathrow but has a regular express train service to London, and decent road links, too.
Check-in was quick and simple as premium passengers have their own desks. We were handed our boarding passes, which we could use to fast-track through security. This is great news for two reasons – firstly, Gatwick can be an absolute zoo when it’s busy, and secondly, unlike Heathrow, where everyone and his dog seems to be an elite level traveler and using the fast track, it’s utterly empty. We also received invitations to the No. 1 lounge, which is a privately run operation at Gatwick. Just a few minutes later we were seated in the busy but comfortable lounge. It’s not like most lounges with limitless everything – there was a menu with a few food options that you could swap for one item and one only.
I chose the beef-filled yorkshire pudding, which was lovely if small. Jen had an uninspiring bacon sandwich. Service was, let’s say, unrushed. There were two Apple Macs for your computing needs and also a small sports lounge with a big-screen TV which appeared to just be a resting place for people with no interest in sports, and “the Library” – an anteroom designed for quiet time with a meeting desk but a reminder that your phone must be switched off. We found it all ok but nothing special – There’s a more comprehensive review of the lounge (not by us) at headforpoints.
Our flight was called and off we went to see why more and more people are flying Norwegian.
It’s a bit of a scrum to board the aircraft, but because Norwegian kindly let us on early so we could take a few photos, we can’t tell you whether they let Premium passengers on first. There’s certainly no separate line, and they didn’t seem to at LAX. There’s still a certain joy turning left when entering an aircraft – makes you feel just a little fancy! The 787 is laid out in a 2-3-2 pattern (Emirates, one of the better airlines out there, uses a 2-3-2 layout in business) with seats that on first sight are miles apart and nicely wide. After a short technical delay (something about the starboard engine which I never did fully understand) we were away and climbing quickly across the English countryside. The cabin is lovely and quiet, in the front at least. It’s no A380 but it’s better than most. Overall it’s just a pleasant place to be.
Norwegian shout quite loudly about their 55 inches of legroom but this is a little misleading – the seat pitch (which every other airline uses to describe how cramped you’ll be) is 46 inches – still it’s a ton of space for the money, even when the person in front reclines their seat. For our US readers, it’s best described as a slight upgrade from domestic First Class – no lie flat seat here but plenty of room . The seats are 19 inches wide and the seat belts are pretty accommodating – no need for an extender for us. Each seat gets an international (we tried UK and US plugs and they worked fine) socket with mains power. Neither of us, nor the other big guy we got talking to on our flight, felt even vaguely cramped and we all agreed that for the money it’s one of the best seats in the sky.
There’s a nicely sized screen in one armrest and a tray table in the other – but you can’t open the tray table if the screen is in view as they collide. Also the tray tables were just a little too close to the seat for either of us to open them fully – those of us who are more generously proportioned would appreciate some more thought here. The video system offers the usual limited selection of recent Hollywood movies, a couple of episodes of some popular TV shows, but no audio channel I could find. There’s a fair amount to keep you occupied for a long flight including a trivia quiz that you can play with your fellow passengers.
The 787 Dreamliner is a very cool aircraft – for a number of reasons. First is the cabin pressure – at maximum altitude the cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of 6,000 feet, (the same as the 747 at normal operating altitude, but 2,000 feet lower than say the 777) . At 6,000 feet the effective level of oxygen in the air is at 16.6% vs 15.4% for 8,000. Not a huge difference but enough to feel it, especially if you’re not super-fit. The bigger difference comes from a throwback to when smoking was allowed on planes, something which is still amazing to me. Fresh Air. The 787 brings outside air into the cabin, heated by the engines (science…) and flows it through the aircraft. Most planes use recycled air and boy, can you tell the difference when you land after 11 hours. This is fresh and more importantly, more humid.. We felt… great! Maybe that had something to do with the variable lighting which is set to relax you while flying. The whole cabin changes color and it’s really quite the trip. Anyway, it’s a great aircraft, with much bigger windows than you’re used to with cool inbuilt LCD style dimmers that you control with dark and light buttons. The Crew can set a maximum transparency for relaxation purposes, like when overnighting.
As you can see the seat reclines a fair distance, and it’s comfortable enough that on the way home I got a solid seven hours sleep once I’d worked out that the footrest is annoying if you’re tall and flipped it back up. It’s just in the wrong place if you have even slightly long legs and didn’t extend far enough. Bent knees for nine hours = unhappy Stu. The same was true of the headrest when the seat is upright. It dug into my upper back, which is a pain in the shoulders and the backside, but it’s not for long so it’s ok. When reclined it’s great – the sides flip up and hold your head still. If there’s one more gripe it’s the lack of good lumbar support, but the blanket which Norwegian supplies you, (along with decent headphones and not much else), makes a good substitute when rolled up. Bring your own neck pillow, eye-shades and earplugs if you find it tricky to doze off on an aircraft.
Norwegian have had something of a bad rap when it comes to food but we couldn’t complain about our meals – we had Beef, with vegetables and rice, which was better than we were expecting, and certainly tastier than it looked! When the crew realized we were reviewing the flight they brought us the economy meal to compare and I have to say it was way better than I thought it might be on a LCC.
A nice touch was the offer of either Bailey’s or Cognac after the main meal. You can use your screen to order (chargeable) snacks or (free) alcohol. There are cocktails but if you want a little bang for your ..er.. buck, order a fruit juice and a miniature, which are all good middle-quality fare. It’s a nice system, take your time to decide what you’d like, order it from the screen like you might on any website, and the smiling (really!) and friendly staff, who, by the way, you’ll otherwise seldom see, show up with your order a few minutes later. It’s all very efficient. Tea and coffee were also available in decent sized (paper) cups that weren’t drained with one gulp!
Upon landing at LAX we breezed through the new machine-reading passport control and waited for our bags – which aren’t sorted into premium and not-premium like they would be if you were flying business class, which was mildly disappointing.
The return flight was just as good. LAX check-in was over in a flash, and once again we were fast-tracked through security. The OneWorld lounge at LAX is fantastic. It’s huge, the bar’s well stocked (we got to try several wines), and the food is vaguely okay too. There’s a nice review of it at Everybody Hates A Tourist. The walk to the gate seemed to go on for ever but maybe that’s because we were both swaying slightly by this point. There was a long line at one side of the desk and no-one at the other so, because I’m that guy, we wandered over to inquire whether there was a separate line for premium passengers to be told there wasn’t but come through anyway, followed shortly by an announcement that there are two lines so please use both!! I don’t remember much of the flight home as I slept for nearly all of it, which, trust me, is a recommendation. There’s something very satisfying about returning to the waking world, checking the map and realizing you’re almost at your destination.
Would we travel Norwegian again, long-haul? Absolutely Yes! Norwegian has worked hard to improve their reputation from the days of sudden airline and aircraft changes; let’s hope the customer experience stays this way as they expand. For the money they’re fantastic value. The seat could be improved slightly for taller people, but all in all we we thought that the balance of price and service was fantastic. They fly London (and onward to loads of destinations in Europe) from various US Cities, including Boston, New York, LA, Oakland (for San Francisco), Seattle and Austin and can be found at Norwegian.com
All in all – thoroughly recommended. A leading LCC with excellent staff and a great value product.
Please note that apart from letting us on the plane early in London for photos and giving us an extra meal for comparison purposes, Norwegian (nor anyone else) has provided any money or benefits for this review – we paid for our seats ourselves.
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