Sleepless from Seattle

Across the pond, legacy carriers routinely price one-ways not at just more than half a return ticket, but more than a return ticket. Conveniently, the rise of ‘low cost longhaul’ has brought with it the point-to-point pricing model that is now standard on European shorthaul (where the LCCs have long reigned). In particular, Norwegian would happily fly the pair of us from Seattle to London, in the front row of a shiny new 787, for £1040 all-in. That was barely more than the £982 BA wanted for the fees, charges and seat selection on our outbound redemption – never mind the avios and voucher.

Of course, 1A/C in Norwegian Premium, whilst arguably the best seats on the plane, are still seats. So this flight would indeed mark the end of my streak of beds in the sky. Still, it looked substantially better than World Traveller Plus, and I put in tens of thousands of miles in Economy back in the day. How bad could it be?

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DI7132
Dep SEA Seattle-Tacoma International 13:45 6th August 2018 (local time)
Arr LGW London- Gatwick 06:55 7th August 2018 (local time)
Flight duration: 9 hours 10 minutes
Seats: 1A/C Cabin: Premium
Operated by: Norwegian (G-CKNZ Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner)

After one last leisurely breakfast at Juneau, we bid farewell to the Arctic Club and proceeded to SeaTac: a straight shot on the Link light rail from Pioneer Square Station, half a block away. Flying Norwegian premium allows access to a separate check-in desk; that still took ten minutes, but looked a lot better than the economy queue. It doesn’t confer any advantages at security, for which the regular line had been extended multiple times via a maze of tensa-barriers. Navigating those took almost half an hour, but the security check itself was a breeze: good-humoured staff, and no need to unpack liquids or electronics from baggage.

Another perk – not often given for premium economy — was lounge access, although Priority Pass would have got us in anyway. Specifically, we could make use of the The Club, which we found about midway along the A gates. I later discovered there is also an American Express Centurion Lounge – that may have been a better facility, but its B gate location could have been disastrous…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We were settled into The Club by 12:15; a decent enough lounge once I realised it was bigger than it first appears, although too crowded to take photos and the coffee machine was out of action. Still, we were able to find a pair of seats together, and rustle up some light refreshments: salad/hummus/pasta/veg for Alaina; cakes, bars and crisps for me.

Our boarding passes suggested a go-to-gate of 12:45; since that was fully an hour before scheduled departure and also coincided with the check-in deadline, I cheerfully ignored it. Whilst I’m used to – and appreciate! – lounges not having boarding calls over loudspeaker, I do assume that the screens will be reliable. Alas, I failed to notice various flights depart without ever being tagged as ready for boarding; it was only by dumb luck that by 13:15 I decided it was worth finding our gate even though the screen was making no such suggestion.

Naturally that gate turned out to be about as far away as it could be within section A – and almost completely deserted, save for the staff frantically waving us to join at a sprint the final bus to the plane. Not a great start to proceedings, but it did mean that from gate to pre-departure beverage (water or juice) was just ten minutes! Fortunately there was still plenty of overhead baggage space (which, as we were in front row bulk head seats would have to be used for all items during takeoff and landing). Given our late arrival I stashed my camera kit immediately, so the cabin shot below is from the very end of the flight instead:

Initial impressions were favourable: not only is the 787-9 an impressively modern aircraft (which I’d only briefly tested until now), this particular frame (G-CKNZ) had only entered service in January. Norwegian’s Premium cabin in this aircraft is configured as 8 rows of 2-3-2 seating, for a generous 46” pitch – far more than you’d get in BA’s World Traveller Plus, for example. Screens are stowed in the arm rest rather than attached to the seat ahead, presumably due to the substantial recline; as well as providing a library of films and TV shows, these can be used for at-seat ordering (including duty free, and blankets / headsets back in Economy). Seats have a power socket good for UK plugs as well as a USB port on the screen, although it seemed either option would only trickle-charge a phone.

The bar service is complementary in Premium, but regardless of cabin, alcohol can only be consumed if purchased from the crew, who, we were informed, will serve in moderation! There are two dedicated toilets for the Premium cabin, at the very front; despite our bulkhead seats being closest, this didn’t cause any disruption / crowding.

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Hopefully due to congestion rather than our boarding antics, push-back wasn’t until ten minutes after our allotted time, and it took another twenty minutes trundling around the airfield before lining up for launch. Our early afternoon departure – and the 787’s excellent windows – allowed for some fantastic views as we climbed: re-tracing landmarks from our visit such as the docks, Puget Sound, downtown and Gasworks Park. (Later, a break in the clouds offered a last glimpse of the Cascades, now at geological scale).

The meal service is delivered in a long cardboard box (versus the proper crockery and cutlery you’d find in WTP), but both dinner – chicken puttanesca – and dessert – an assortment of macaroons – were decent. Wine was served with dinner, and as the trays were cleared away, there was the option of tea/coffee/cognac.

Norwegian Premium main meal service

With dining all wrapped up by 4pm, I made my first attempt at sleep. Although not helped by the timing – we had yet to fly into darkness, and not all of those big windows had yet been dimmed – the real problem was the seat. It reclines well enough, but the only sleeping arrangement possible is flat on your back. Foiling any other configuration is the headrest – an uncomfortable leather lozenge that won’t support your head if you try to shape it. Also unhelpful is the footrest: this has a fixed 90 degree angle, so your experiences are either ‘barber shop’ or ‘rollercoaster’ depending on whether you deploy it or let your feet dangle.

In defense of the product, based on snoring from elsewhere some folks made it work. I also can’t fault the cabin temperature (sensible throughout) or pressure (my ears never popped); and the blanket was excellent – I just wish it came with a pillow! But once the cabin lights came back up at 21:15 – or 5:15AM as I would now grudgingly have to think of it – I felt as if I had been robbed of a night, having managed no sleep at all.

Five minutes later, another box arrived containing breakfast – a strange medley of proteins and… a pepper? Alaina’s vegetarian choice looked better, with a much more substantial assortment of fruit than the few items which accompanied mine.

Norwegian Premium breakfast (plus fruit not shown)

Just before 6am everything was cleared away, as a beautiful sunrise off the coast of Ireland provided a welcome home to the British Isles. By 6:25 the start of descent was announced, although one last soft drinks run was fitted in before the cabin was prepped for landing. That turned out to be just a minute later than scheduled, with another ten minutes to find a gate (conveniently, one with a jetbridge). E-gates made immigration a breeze, and we were reunited with our luggage by 7:20.

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My final verdict on Norwegian Premium is, I imagine, predictable: a completely viable alternative to premium economy as offered by the non-LCCs; but no substitute for a flatbed business product if you want to sleep. Whether or not I’d fly it again or wait to return to Club is also obvious: it’ll depend on price and/or how quickly I can replenish my avios stash. Whilst some considered this winter ‘17 booking for a summer ‘18 flight risky, Norwegian continue to defy predictions of their imminent demise. But even if they don’t make it long-term, I hope they’ve at least demonstrated to the traditional airlines that more can be achieved in the space between bargain economy and full-on business class.