Politico Q&A: Asgeir Nyseth, CEO of Norwegian Air International

Q&A: Asgeir Nyseth, CEO of Norwegian Air International
By Adam Snider
10/9/14 3:47 PM EDT

Earlier this week, Norwegian Air International CEO Asgeir Nyseth came by the POLITICO newsroom to talk about his airline’s bid to operate in the United States, why he has full confidence in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and why his customers shouldn’t be fighting over reclining seats and legroom. The transcript below has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Why does NAI want to come to the United States despite some heavy opposition from Congress, unions and others?

“Our business model has been to base crew outside of Scandinavia, to do low-cost, low-fare tickets. So the business model we built up, first in Norway, then in Scandinavia and out to the rest of Europe — Spain, the U.K. — we said that that business model could be used to go long-haul. It was early into that business model that we said we could do it, but there were no aircraft available. You had the Airbus 330 available, but it was too thirsty, and too costly in maintenance, and you can’t have that utilization you want to have. And the fuel price at that time was really, really high. So we put it away for the time. …

“Later, in the discussions with Boeing, they came up with the 787. And that aircraft is the first aircraft — the only aircraft — in the market that you could go low-cost, long-haul with. We set up some routes to do that. So we saw that if you go from Asia into Europe, from Europe and to the states, then you have a utilization [of the plane] of around 17 to 18 hours, and that is what we were looking for. You need to have high utilization of the aircraft, high utilization of the crew if you should have a low-cost business model. So we did so.”

Do you have full confidence in the Dreamliner that your company relies so heavily on?

“There had been some challenges — there’s no secret about that. But the 787 gets better and better every day. You’ve got more experience from the maintenance side, the people who are doing the maintenance know the aircraft better. It’s a new technology on that aircraft, so they need to have more experience. But the aircraft itself, when it flies — it’s a perfect aircraft. The crew and the pilots who have a lot of experience on other types — from the 777, from the Boeing 747, from Airbus 330 — they say it may be one of the best aircraft they have ever flown.”

Some U.S. politicians have criticized how you hire crew from all over the world, arguing it hurts safety in the name of lower operating costs. What’s wrong about that line of thinking?

“The reason that we put all these bases outside our home base is that Norway is a small country — just 5 million people. So you can’t have flights into and out of Oslo every single day. So we need to fly from big cities — Bangkok, New York, London-Gatwick and into smaller countries. … So if you have [the crew] in Oslo, you have to have them commute one day to Stockholm, another day in Denmark, back to London-Heathrow, so most of the seats in our airplanes would be full [of crew members commuting]. So therefore we have this crew base outside — it’s nothing unique.”

Why is it so hard to convince U.S. lawmakers of that?

“I think there have been some good lobbyists on that. … I think that they don’t understand the business model that we have built up. Yes, we have this agency recruiting people, but that is only for two to three years. After two to three years, when we have the base up and running and we feel, yes, that is going well, then we take the employees into Norwegian.”

Are you in touch with DOT about the application to operate in the United States?

“It’s not possible to talk to DOT in this process.”

No timeline or guidance of any sort?

“No — that is a big problem.”

DOT is considering barring people from talking on their cell phones during a flight. Do you talk on the phone and do you support a ban?

“Oh, no, no, no. … Personally, I think it’s good.”

The States recently saw a string of in-flight confrontations between passengers over reclining seats. Is that an issue you worry about?

“No. On the long-haul market, we have two classes. We have the economic class and the primary economic class. In the front row, I think we have 32 seats in the primary economic class — there you have 46 inches between the seats. You can — if you are sitting behind a seat reclined fully back, you can still go about. In the back, I’m not sure how much recline we have on the seats, but it’s not a problem.”

Is the debate over air traffic control modernization much different in Europe?

“You have this same discussion going on in Europe and in Norway, that it will route planes into the airports faster, and to save fuel and to do it safer. You have to think of a new way of doing things.”

How did you pick Ireland as the base for NAI?

“Ireland has a lot of leasing companies already based there. The Irish authority has a good standing in the EASA system. They have an aviation business running already, they have maintenance facilities, they have Aer Lingus, they have Ryanair, they have big businesses.”

Some U.S. politicians have questioned how well Irish safety authorities can keep a watch on your fleet.

“I have been working with the authority in Norway ever since I left the Air Force, for 34 years. I’ve been working with the authorities in Sweden. And now I’ve been working with the Irish authorities. They are really professional. They have the resources, they have everything. And they are also recruiting more people when we are taking on more aircraft, so they are really qualified. In my opinion, they are better than many others I have been working with — much better.”

What’s the biggest long-term challenge for NAI?

“The biggest challenge in the first two years is to have enough aircraft — it is. It could be that will be easy to recruit enough qualified pilots. Will it be a problem to have enough qualified engineers to maintain all the aircraft?”

On a personal note, Norway has a lot of heavy metal bands. Any involvement?

“Next Monday — not the coming one but next Monday — I have a meeting with Bruce Dickinson.” [Dickinson is a pilot and the lead vocalist of Iron Maiden