Norwegian Makes a Risky Choice to Serve New York City Through Stewart International Airport

Are you watching what Norwegian is up to these days? You should be. The airline seems to be throwing darts all over a world map, hoping something is going to stick. Oh sure, there’s the hare-brained scheme to start flying within Argentina, but today I want to talk about something closer to home. Norwegian is making a risky bet that it can serve New York via a little-used airport more than 60 miles north of Manhattan. (It’s also planning the same alternate airport strategy in Boston, likely with Providence.) You might assume I’d be skeptical that this would work. You’d be right.

On the heels of Norwegian getting its Irish subsidiary approved, it has decided the time is ripe to expand in the US. In the middle of next year, it gets its first 737MAX aircraft, and those airplanes will be able to quite capably fly from the Northeast US over to Western Europe. It appears that the first base for this operation in the US will be Stewart International Airport. Chances are you’ve never heard of Stewart, because for 99 percent of the people flying to/from New York City, that’s not even in the consideration set.

At right, you can see a map of most the airports that try to serve New York City. For those not familiar with the geography, Manhattan

So where is an airline with grand plans supposed to go? There is Islip way out east on Long Island (and not on this map). Southwest gave that airport a brief renaissance, but the airline cut back as it gained access to the main airports in town. Westchester up to the north is in a fantastic spot to serve the wealthy Westchester County area, but it’s highly-restricted with a relatively short runway. Looking at this landscape, Norwegian has apparently decided that Stewart is the answer.

Stewart has been run by the Port Authority for the last decade, the group that (tries) to run JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. (It also runs Atlantic City and Teterboro, in case you were interested.) The airport itself has very little service today with American running three a day to Philly, Delta sending two a day to Detroit, JetBlue putting one a day each into Ft Lauderdale and Orlando, and Allegiant throwing a couple airplanes a week down south as well. That’s it.

This very limited amount of service is probably because it’s really not located very well. It lies just to the west of the Hudson River, near the intersection of Interstates 84 and 87. The primary catchment is likely to be northern New Jersey, parts of New York north of New York City, and likely some of Connecticut, but it’s the first choice for very few people. From Manhattan, it’s over 60 miles away, and that involves tolls and bridges.

As if that’s not bad enough, there’s the public transit problem. There are a couple of Metro-North lines that run sort-of-close to the airport. The Port Jervis line goes down to Hoboken, just across from Manhattan, but a) Hoboken is NOT Manhattan (neither is Secaucus right before it) and b) you still need to take a cab for a few miles to get from Stewart to the station. The Hudson line goes right into Grand Central in Manhattan, but it not only takes an hour and a half, it’s a 20 minute taxi ride (or longer bus ride) to get from Stewart to the station. Options are terrible.

With this information, why on Earth does Norwegian think this is a good place from which to launch Transatlantic service? I can think of three things it has going for it.

  1. The runway is nearly 12,000 feet long. It’s shorter for landings, but it’s still long enough for Europe runs.

  2. Customs and immigration already exists at the airport, though the terminal expansion to properly house it permanently is still not done.

  3. It’s cheap for the airline to operate there.

Ok, so that’s something. And it sounds a lot like why, say, Ryanair decided to pretend Hahn Airport was in Frankfurt despite it being very far away. At Hahn, Ryanair was able to bring in low fares and pull people from Frankfurt (and elsewhere) to use the airport. Norwegian probably thinks it can do the same thing, but the dynamics are different here.

Frankfurt had no low-cost service, so it was an easy price-based sell for Ryanair to come in and pull people away. The same can’t be said for NYC airports. Over the Atlantic, there isn’t a ton of low cost competition in general, but New York has a presence from nearly all the ones that exist (Aer Lingus, Air Berlin, Air Europa, Icelandair, Meridiana, Thomnas Cook, XL Airways France, etc.)

On top of that, the legacy airlines very often provide low fare transportation, especially outside of the summer peak. Over the weekend, I looked at JFK to London in March and saw fares just over $500 roundtrip with taxes making up about $200 of that. Now, Norwegian says it can operate its flights for $300 to $350 roundtrip all-in. Presumably that won’t include a bag or food or much else. It’ll have a shuttle bus service to get people between New York City and Stewart, but I assume that’ll cost extra as well. In the end, is there enough meat on the bone to get people to schlep out to Stewart? Can people save enough money to make it worth it?

Maybe there is just enough, barring competitive response, but do you really think the legacy airlines are going to take this lying down? Norwegian is said to be planning 21 flights a week from Stewart to the British Isles and Norway. British Airways has already decided to aggressively compete with Norwegian over the Atlantic by adding flights on unlikely routes like London to Oakland. So might BA go to Stewart and sit on top of Norwegian? I doubt it. I don’t think it’s necessary.

BA, or any other traditional airline, just needs to be willing to keep prices low enough from JFK or Newark to prevent anyone from needing to head up to Stewart to get a deal. Outside of summer, there’s no reason to think airlines couldn’t easily be competitive if they so chose. I imagine they will. (Get ready for a low fare party, New York.) That would leave only those people who actually find Stewart to be more convenient to want to stick with BA Norwegian. That’s not likely a huge number of people…unless no other airline flies the route nonstop.

Norwegian does have smaller airplanes, so it can go to smaller places. Maybe an Allegiant-style play is what we’re going to see. The person in Sioux Falls, SD might not like flying Allegiant, but sure enough Allegiant is the only airline flying nonstop to Vegas and the price is good. If Norwegian does fly to places like Cork, which it has said, then those people flying to Cork are going to drive to Stewart and fly Norwegian since no other nonstop is available.

I’m not sure how many small-city Europe routes can support even a 737 out of New York City, but this might help at least something to work… unless Aer Lingus opens up that Cork hub.

Stewart has a lot going against it, so creativity is going to be extremely important to find a niche that works. I’m not sure one exists, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. Let’s see it, Norwegian.


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