A Tighter Squeeze, But Still a Great Ride: Norwegian (787-9) Premium London – Buenos Aires
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To The Point
Norwegian’s new Boeing 787-9 Premium configuration is more dense with fewer inches of legroom, but still a comfortable product for the price. The pros: Cheap tickets and comfortable seats. The cons: Tight squeeze for a Premium product, not enough Premium lavatories and inconsistent food.
Never before has a low-cost carrier flown nonstop between the UK and Argentina. Norwegian Air, in the midst of its rapid US expansion, announced its intention in December 2016 to expand yet again by developing an Argentina-based airline, including adding nonstop routes between the UK and Argentina.
On Wednesday, the first of the Norwegian flights to South America departed from London Gatwick (LGW), bound for Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE). Not only that, but this was the inaugural flight for Norwegian’s newly configured Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. The more dense Premium cabin — 56 seats as opposed to 35 on the older version of the 787-9 — offers passengers less legroom. But, would it really make that big of a difference in the overall flight experience? I tested it to find out just that.
When it comes to booking a ticket with Norwegian, your options for using points and miles are pretty limited. So, cash (well, credit card) it was. Because I wanted the ability to change the ticket if needed, I ended up booking a fully refundable ticket. Although it cost a bit more than the basic Premium ticket, it gave me the comfort of being able to remain flexible with my plans.
The one-way Premium refundable ticket from LGW to EZE cost $1,324, and the non-refundable ticket would have cost $986. Before booking, I made sure to try out the trick for using a foreign version of the Norwegian site to save some cash, as in the past it’s saved me upwards of 20%, but it didn’t work on this route.
I paid for the ticket using the Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x points on airfare booked directly through the airline. In all, the ticket earned 6,620 Membership Rewards points, which are worth $126 based on TPG‘s most recent valuations.
Check-In and Lounge
Given that this was an inaugural flight — and a huge one for Norwegian — I got to the airport earlier than usual to make sure I had time in both the lounge and for any gate-area festivities. I arrived at the airport at around 6:45pm for the 9:30pm flight.
Norwegian, which is known as a bare-bones carrier, charging economy passengers for everything from seat selection to meals and carry-ons, offers Premium flyers complimentary seat selection, two checked bags, priority check-in and boarding, lounge access and more. So, I was able to check-in via the Premium lane with two carry-on items (one personal and one carry-on bag), as well as get lounge access and priority security. Plus, the check-in agent passed along an invitation to arrive at the gate at 7:45pm for some pre-flight festivities, including a drink reception and tango performance.
The security process was very quick. I was one of only two people going through the priority lane at the time, which allowed me to get through in less than five minutes.
Premium passengers departing from LGW — Norwegian’s London hub — have access to the No1 Lounge, which also happens to be a Priority Pass lounge. By the time I got there, it was near capacity. I saw the agent turn away at least one Priority Pass member trying to get in.
At the No1 Lounge, all drinks are complimentary, and there are snacks throughout. Overall, I found the lounge to be modern and pleasant, with a decent amount of seating options.
Instead of picking up snacks, you can order off a menu at the bar — again complimentary. I chose the mushroom risotto just to try it out. The dish came quickly and was decent, but it was a little on the thicker side.
I only had about 30 minutes in the lounge before it was time to head to the gate for the pre-flight festivities.
Not only was this flight a first for Norwegian in flying to South America, or for the new Premium cabin configuration, but it was also this particular 787-9’s first-ever commercial flight. The aircraft, registration G-CKOF, was just delivered to the airline before making its inaugural commercial journey on Wednesday — a plane that was all of one month old!
Norwegian went all-out with this service launch. And I have to say, I didn’t really expect that, given its low-cost nature. A member of the Argentinian embassy, a representative from LGW and Norwegian’s Chief Commercial Officer Thomas Ramdahl were all in attendance. The three — and a duo of tango dancers — posed with flags of the UK and Argentina.
After their performance, the tango dancers offered brief lessons to passengers — but I sat that part out…
And, of course, there was a ceremonial cake cutting.
The boarding area was a bit chaotic between the combination of employees, passengers, tango dancing and free food and booze.
Cabin and Seat
Norwegian’s new Dreamliner configuration comes with a whopping 56 seats in Premium, a 60% increase over its older 787-9s. Of course, Norwegian had to make some cuts. Each of the seats in Premium now has 3 inches less in pitch than seats on the older planes — 43 vs. 46.
In addition to shrinking the seat pitch, the carrier also shrunk the economy cabin, from 309 seats to 282.
But, aside from the reduced pitch and more seats, everything about the new Premium cabin is the same as that you’d find in the older cabin. The seats themselves are the same, the features are the same and the rest of the experience is unchanged.
In the new cabin, all 56 seats in the Premium cabin are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration across eight rows. Each passenger will still have the same 19 inches of width, which is mostly on par with other international premium economy options.
All of the Premium seats are condensed into a single cabin, as opposed to being arranged in multiple cabins with a lavatory separating the two. Though a bit dense, I liked the feel of the one cabin. That being said, it does make for a cramped lavatory situation, as there are only two. Right behind the Premium cabin, however, are five additional lavatories separating it from economy. There are also an additional two at the rear of the aircraft.
According to Norwegian’s CCO Ramdahl, the Premium cabin on routes to and from London is almost always filled — hence the desire to increase those seats. Ramdahl said that the new versions of Norwegian’s Boeing 787-9 with 56 seats will initially be scheduled for service on routes operating to or from London, given the high demand.
For the inaugural flight, I was seat in seat 6J, which is a window seat toward the rear of the eight-row cabin. When I first boarded the aircraft, I didn’t notice a huge difference in the Premium seat with the reduced 3 inches of pitch. I still felt that I had a good amount of legroom — especially when my seat was reclined and footrest was in use.
However, when the seat in front of me was reclined during the flight, it was a tight squeeze — a very tight squeeze. The seats have a decent amount of recline, meaning that with 3 less inches of pitch, there isn’t much room to maneuver out of your row if you need to get up. Thankfully, the seat next to me was empty so I didn’t have to worry about disturbing a neighbor. Given how tight of a squeeze it is, I would highly recommend avoiding the middle seat of the three-seat set — it looked incredibly cramped and hard to get in and out of.
I found the location of my seat to be great. There wasn’t too much foot traffic, as there were only two rows of seats behind me, and there wasn’t too much noise or light from the galley.
The seats themselves were pretty stiff, but comfortable. Each had an adjustable headrest that can move vertically to fit your needs, as well as adjustable flaps for support. Rather than seat-back in-flight entertainment screens, Norwegian utilizes a screen that can be accessed from under one of the armrests, meaning it must be stowed for taxi, takeoff and landing.
Under the other armrest is a tray table as well as the relatively straightforward seat controls. There are only two: one for the footrest and one for the seat recline.
Overall, I was skeptical of this new configuration. Reducing pitch is never a good idea in terms of passenger comfort. However, I found Norwegian’s more dense Premium cabin to be perfectly comfortable — especially given the low price tag. That being said, it can be tight when the person in front of you is reclined.
Food and Beverage
As a Premium flyer, I was entitled to two complimentary meals — dinner followed by breakfast. About an hour after departure, dinner meal service began with a complimentary beverage. Flight attendants then came around a second time with meal choices: fish, chicken or beef.
I opted to try the fish, which was pike. Much to my surprise, it was very good — not overcooked, with plenty of flavor. The potatoes on the side were also tasty, thanks in no small part to the creamy sauce they were in. There was a grain-based appetizer, which was underwhelming and lacked flavor. But, the highlight of the meal was the dessert, which was a cake in a perfectly creamy frosting that wasn’t too sweet. Overall, the meal was one of the better I’ve had in a non-business or first-class cabin.
With my expectations high, I was excited to try breakfast. About 1.5 hours before landing the crew came around the cabin with breakfast, which consisted of only one option: English breakfast. The dish included sausage, bacon mushrooms, tomato and eggs, and I found it to be a letdown. The eggs were rubbery, the tomato had no taste and it just looked bland. The meal was served with fruit, which tasted like it had been sitting around, and a croissant, which was the highlight of the meal.
Overall, dining was a bit all over the map on this flight. While the dinner was delicious, breakfast was disappointing. It’s worth mentioning that sitting in Premium means complimentary drinks, and flight attendants made several rounds — before, during and after dinner service — to refill empty glasses.
Upon boarding, each seat had a plastic-wrapped blanket. I’m a big fan of Norwegian’s blankets. They’re not too heavy, but they’re not paper-thin, either. My only complaint is that they’re a little on the short side, which could be an issue for taller travelers. Notably lacking, however, was a pillow.
Premium passengers don’t get any sort of amenity kit. When I was getting ready to get some sleep, I asked a flight attendant if there were any eyeshades, but he said there were none. I think that if Norwegian wants to improve this product, it should consider adding in-flight amenities for its Premium travelers. Even an offering as simple as an eyeshade and earplugs can help to make all the difference on a long-haul flight.
Each seat in Premium has access to a power outlet as well as a USB outlet in the in-flight entertainment system. Flight attendants also offered passengers a set of headphones for the flight.
It’s widely known that Norwegian is planning to add Wi-Fi to its long-haul fleet. Not just any Wi-Fi, but free Wi-Fi. In a pre-flight conversation, CCO Thomas Ramdahl said that the newest Dreamliners have the Wi-Fi technology already installed on the aircraft. So, when the carrier gets the required regulatory approvals it can simply flip the switch, which will greatly help to improve the in-flight experience, especially for business travelers.
In-Flight Entertainment and Service
The in-flight entertainment system was pretty standard. As mentioned previously, the system lives under one armrest for each of the Premium seats, meaning it must be stowed during taxi, takeoff and landing. They’re operated via touchscreen, and I found the receptiveness to be fantastic. (As one would hope, given that it was this aircraft’s first-ever commercial flight.)
The IFE system had the basic offerings — both movies and TV. There was a decent selection of new releases and classics, though I opted not to watch anything, choosing to sleep for the majority of the flight.
As for service, I found it to be great. For me, service can make or break a flight experience, and Norwegian’s flight attendants on this route helped to make the carrier’s first ever to South America enjoyable. Not only were they friendly, but meal service was quick and efficient.
If you board a Norwegian Premium flight expecting an Emirates business-class product, you’ll be sorely disappointed. However, as long as you know what you’re getting, it’s a really solid product overall, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to take again.
The carrier’s increased capacity in Premium on its 789s results in a couple of negatives, namely the reduced seat pitch and more passengers using only two lavatories. However, it also means that more passengers have access to the Premium product — and a comfortable one at that. In a conversation with Ramdahl, he said that even with more seats in the cabin, he doesn’t expect the price for Premium to go down: “I think the prices today are really good.”