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Hamilton Economic Development

Feisty low-cost Euro airline Norwegian Air taking off at Hamilton’s airport

Rapidly-growing low-cost airline Norwegian Air is breaking into the Canadian passenger air market by offering daily year-round flights from Hamilton International Airport to Dublin starting in March 2019.

What happened in Las Vegas did not stay in Las Vegas — and that’s a good thing for Hamilton International Airport, which has landed rapidly-growing low-cost carrier Norwegian Air.

The courtship began at a trade conference in February 2017, at what those in the business call speed-dating.

A team from Norwegian listened to 20-minute pitches from North American airports seeking their business.

Hamilton’s pitch: Its airport runs 24/7, has passenger service and is Canada’s third busiest cargo airport, with quick aircraft turnaround times from ground to air.

The kicker: Location. Just down the road from Toronto, and a catchment area of nine million people within a two-hour drive.

Norwegian was interested. Talks continued, and then negotiations with officials from the airport, owned by the City of Hamilton and operated by Vantage Airport Group.

This week two Norwegian Air officials arrived at the airport in Mount Hope for the first time to announce they are taking off in Hamilton — the company’s first foray into the Canadian market.

Norwegian Air will start flying out of Hamilton next March with a daily flight to Dublin, year-round. A one-way fare will start at $279, taxes included.

“It is a good price,” Anders Lindstrom, the airline’s communications director, told The Spectator. “We have one of the youngest fleets in the world, we will fly faster than our competitors, on lighter, more modern aircraft.”

He said the service won’t be billed as simply Hamilton-to-Dublin, rather each city will be considered a gateway for local excursions and travel further afield in Europe or Canada.

“We will be selling Hamilton to Europe — to Dublin, Oslo, Stockholm, Rome, to start, we will broaden it, there will be smooth connections, easy access.”

He added this is just the beginning, and more routes out of Hamilton will likely follow.

“We are committed to this market and we will be back with more announcements. We see so much potential here.”

The seven-hour flight to Ireland will start March 31.

Hamilton last offered seasonal summer flights to Europe from 2007 to 2009.

Toronto will be the prime marketing attraction for European travellers coming this way, but Lindstrom said the route will help popularize Hamilton: “Some people will go to Hamilton, some to Niagara Falls, the wine region.”

The plan had been for Norwegian to begin flying into Hamilton this summer, but navigating federal government approvals for Canadian air rights alone took nine months and the company wanted more lead-time to market their brand here.

Hamilton Airport president and CEO Cathie Puckering said she is beyond excited for “this opportunity, and this partnership. We know the Hamilton market is ready for service to Europe.”

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger applauded the news, saying through a spokesperson that it will add to airport revenues and offer international flight options for customers beyond having to fly out of Toronto or Buffalo.

Passenger traffic has been up and down over the years, and at times proximity to Toronto has seemed more a curse than blessing.

About 15 years ago, WestJet made the airport its eastern hub and the airport handled one million passengers a year, but the company later moved most of its flights to Pearson Airport and the numbers plummeted.

Still, in 2017, the number of passengers at Hamilton Airport climbed to 600,000 or an 80 per cent increase over the previous year.

Currently WestJet, Flair Air, and Air Canada, fly out of Hamilton, and a new player launched this week — WestJet’s “ultra-low-cost” brand Swoop, which is now offering nonstop flights to Edmonton, Abbotsford, B.C., Winnipeg and Halifax.

On Monday — the same day Norwegian Air officials met with Puckering and media at the airport — Swoop flight attendants were doing dry-run practice manoeuvres in the terminal for their inaugural flight, dressed in the carrier’s signature pink colour scheme.

In keeping with Swoop’s cheeky marketing strategy, a sign in the terminal with a height measurement read: “You must be THIS tall to fly Swoop” and then below: “Ha! Gotcha! Extra tall, super short, or statistically average, we love you all! #Flyswoop.”

A wall adjacent to the check-in counter painted Swoop pink was the first thing that caught the eye of Norwegian Air’s chief commercial officer Thomas Ramdahl when he arrived.

He smiled when he told The Spectator he envisions replacing the pink with a nice solid red, his company’s colour.

Norwegian Air also announced it will operate seasonal flights out of Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport to the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique starting this fall.

(Montreal is a reminder that passenger service is never a sure thing for an airport: Montréal-Mirabel International Airport had its last commercial passenger flight 14 years ago. It now exclusively handles cargo traffic.)

Norwegian Air operates more than 500 routes to 150 destinations around the world, but Hamilton is just the third leg in its North American strategy targeting small-to-medium sized airports near large cities.

It currently flies out of T.F. Green International Airport in Warwick, R.I., (100 kilometres south of Boston) and Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y. (100 kilometres north of Manhattan).

With a fleet of Boeing 737 Max jets, smaller airports allow them to keep aircraft only briefly on the ground, minimizing their footprint, maximizing revenue and keeping costs down. (Six years ago the company purchased 100 of the jets, at US$120 million each, with an option for 100 more.)

Among the customers they are attracting, Ramdahl said, are those who desire travelling to Europe two or three times a year by purchasing cheap fares, and avoiding spending several hours in large airports.

“You see many millennials travelling with us, who use us an entry point into Europe, backpacking by air, basically.”

European media coverage of Norwegian’s rise has suggested they are growing too quickly, but company officials said some rival carriers simply don’t like the competition.

Ramdahl spoke highly of WestJet, however, and said he hopes Norwegian will be able to “explore possibilities of co-operation” with the airline in Canada, adding WestJet shares aspects of their “non-traditional” business philosophy.

Ramdahl and Lindstrom limited their stay in Hamilton to one night in a hotel on Upper James Street and a walk to Shoeless Joe’s Sports Grill for dinner, but vowed to eventually sample more of what the city offers.

This weekend they fly to the U.S. west coast for more talks with officials from two airports, one large and one small, “to see if there are possibilities.”

Article courtesy of Jon Wells, The Hamilton Spectator

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