Norwegian’s plans to increase the number of routes it flies from the UK to Asia are being frustrated by a political spat between Downing Street and the Kremlin.
The airline’s chief executive Bjorn Kjos said his company already ran the world’s longest low-cost route from London to Singapore as well as flying customers to Thailand. But moves to add Asian destinations such as Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing were being stymied by Russia refusing to grant it permission to fly across its airspace.
“We need permission to fly over the Siberian corridor because this gives us the most efficient and direct routing across Russia to the Far East,” Mr Kjos said.
“But Russia is resisting the UK’s rights under existing travel agreements to designate our UK airline permission to fly across its airspace.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin is refusing to let UK airlines fly over the Siberian corridor
The existing Asian flights avoid Russian airspace but are viable because they are already well established. Flying an unnecessarily longer distance on a new route would likely be unprofitable while the company built up demand.
Norwegian’s boss said he hoped the issue could be resolved this year but that there was no certainty, especially if the EU’s sanctions against Russia, implemented on the back of the country’s 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine, are maintained.
Mr Kjos was speaking as he pledged to double down on the UK in a move which will see more flights from Gatwick airport – which currently accounts for a third of all the company’s long-haul flights – and the airline’s newest planes based here.
In 2017, Norwegian carried 5.1 million UK passengers out of a total of 33m, a group-wide figure Mr Kjos hoped would be closer to 40m in 2018.
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The company will take delivery of more than 200 planes in the next five years and the UK will host its first Airbus A321neo LR aircraft in 2019, which will fly passengers to the US East Coast and Midwest by 2020 . The company could also consider routes to the Middle East with such planes, the chief executive added.
The company’s newest routes will also launch at Gatwick before anywhere else on its network, including flights to Argentina beginning this month and direct flights to Chicago and Austin in Texas from March.
Mr Kjos added it was also upgrading cabins to increase the number of premium seats in its 787 Dreamliners from 35 to 56, partly to cater for the growing demand from business travellers.
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