By Pádraig Hoare
Low-cost, long-haul carrier Norwegian Air has said it will increase flights from Irish airports next summer by more than a third — while also confirming Cork’s first transatlantic flights to the US, which had been in doubt, would return.
The airline, which has been strongly linked with a takeover by Aer Lingus owner IAG, said it would increase its offering from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to the US east coast by 37%.
There was disappointment from business and political figures earlier this year when Norwegian announced it was scrapping the winter route from Cork to Providence, Rhode Island.
It was feared the airline would not bring the route back for the summer 2019 schedule but it has allayed those fears by insisting it is committed to the three-times-weekly flight.
Cork Airport said more than 31,000 passengers travelled between Cork and Providence on the Norwegian Air route in its first year, including 60% from the US side.
The route is seen as vital in attracting business and tourist visitors to the Cork region, as US and Canadian visitors to the Republic have risen by 12% this year.
Director of public affairs at Cork Chamber, Thomas McHugh said: “Connectivity is essential to maximising the potential of our regions, and we now have that certainty of services and the ability to plan accordingly that drives consumer confidence across the business and broader customer base.”
Norwegian Air did rule out a Cork-New York flight for the foreseeable future, saying it had “no immediate plans” as it was concentrating on making the Providence route work.
Dublin and Shannon will see routes increased to Providence, New York, while Dublin also has a Toronto route.
Shannon Airport management said Norwegian would more than double its services to Providence and New York by next summer.
Chief executive of the Shannon Group, Matthew Thomas said the Wild Atlantic Way has been a “game-changer” for its business from the US east coast and was making “an ever-increasing impact on tourism in this region”.
The increase in flights comes as Norwegian has been the subject of intense speculation of late that it may be sold to IAG, which also owns British Airways, Iberia and Vueling.
Founder and chief executive Bjorn Kjos said at Norwegian’s annual shareholders’ meeting in May that “at the right price, anything is for sale”.
IAG bought a 4.6% stake in Norwegian in April, leading to speculation it was looking to buy it. Norwegian said two previous bids were rejected because they did not value the company highly enough.
IAG boss Willie Walsh has said the group “remains open-minded about Norwegian”, but that it will “certainly not get involved in a bidding war”.
Lufthansa has also not ruled out making a bid for Norwegian, with boss Carsten Spohr saying “everyone is talking to everyone”.
The German carrier also said it remains interested in a restructured Alitalia and its position has not changed after Italy said this week it wanted a majority stake in the airline under Government control.
Lufthansa has repeatedly said that the Italian market is important for it but that loss-making Alitalia must first be restructured.
Additional reporting Reuters