Who the F*&@ is Primera?

It’s been awhile since I did one of these posts, but the time has come to take a look at Primera, an airline you may be surprised I’ve ignored for this long. After all, Primera had aggressive plans to use narrowbodies to fly between the US and Europe this summer. While there have been problems, it is actually flying on some routes. So let’s take a look.

Primera started out as an Icelandic company back in 2003. Its original focus was the usual story for an upstart in a cold weather climate: carry leisure passengers in cold places to the sun. It did just that primarily as a charter operator. That changed over time, and while the sun-chasing element is still there, it’s now doing it mostly with scheduled flights. The company relocated to Riga, Latvia with a subsidiary airline operating out of Denmark. You can see its European destinations here:

As you can imagine, Primera’s routes are pretty much taking the dots on the top half of the map and connecting them with the dots on the bottom half. The number of destinations may make you think it’s bigger than it is. The airline has, according to its website, 10 737s buzzing around Europe, and that’s it for now (but MAXs are on order). It seems to have carved out a decent niche, and that would normally be the end of the story. But Primera has decided to dream very big.

The airline made a big splash last year when it decided to take A321neos and fly them across the Pond. This summer, Primera is flying twice daily from Newark (one to Paris/CDG and the other to London/Stansted), once daily from Boston (3 weekly to Paris/CDG and 4 weekly to London/Stansted), once daily from Toronto (3 weekly to London/Stansted and 4 weekly to Paris/CDG), and toward the end of the summer it begins flying 5 weekly flights from Washington/Dulles to London/Stansted. I find this all very confusing, because the best I can tell, it only has two neos flying right now, so the math doesn’t add up. I know it has had to get creative — Newark to Paris is on a 767 right now — but presumably this is all due to not having enough airplanes in the fleet just yet. Eventually this should be all A321neo if it can make it long enough to get all those airplanes in the air.

The neo is configured with 198 seats onboard, which isn’t all that dense. (Hawaiian’s A321neo has 189, but all-coach operators can easily squeeze in over 220.) It does have two cabins, similar to what you’ll find on most longer-haul low-cost airlines, but it’s not an overly-generous premium cabin.

There are 16 seats in the premium economy section. This looks to be a fairly standard premium economy offering. Here’s the photo the airline shares.

Don’t be fooled. That first row does have a nice leg rest, but you can clearly see the rows behind do not. It looks like it’s just a domestic-style First Class seat with a footrest in most rows. You get a meal, a small amenity kit, and a power outlet when you fly. Oh and you get water. If an airline has to point that out , I’m not sure how “premium” it really is.

In the back, Primera provides the usual no-frills offering that you’d expect on an airline like this. One article says that the in the regular seats which isn’t all that tight. But there is also an extra legroom section which apparently has two more inches, not all that roomy. You have to pay for any seat assignment, of course, and any food or drink you might want. The only thing included without charge is a USB power outlet.

The airline has strangely chosen the generic slogan of “Fly better, fly Primera Air.” The point, however, isn’t supposed to be that you’re flying “better” but rather that you’re supposed to be flying CHEAPER. And it IS cheaper at a quick glance. Looking at one way fares, I could get a coach seat the next day for $799 with no frills from Newark to London. I could also get premium economy for only $899 on that same flight. And if you have any kind of advance purchase, rates plunge. On July 7, when I checked on Friday, it was $279 with no frills to London or $749 in premium.

So what do I think of this? I don’t get it. An efficient widebody can get you lower seat costs than even the most efficient narrowbody. So on major Transatlantic routes like the ones Primera is flying, it’s going to be hard to compete. Even Norwegian knows to put 787s on those routes (when it isn’t leasing in some stray aircraft out of necessity). Sure, Primera can be a spill carrier in the summer when fares are high on the other airlines, but the rest of the year will likely be a bloodbath. This isn’t likely a sustainable model.

To me, the more interesting idea is that one that Primera had to scrap this year. It was going to fly from Birmingham in the UK over to North America this summer. . That’s not entirely correct. It did start flying from Newark with a leased National 757, but with neo delivery dates slipping, it pulled the plug for all flights from June 21. It says it’ll try again next year.

That kind of market seems far more promising. There isn’t any Transatlantic service to speak of from Birmingham now, and a narrowbody could create a decent niche, especially during the summer. But we won’t know if that’ll work or not since the service is gone.

Primera apparently likes to think of itself as one of the “,” but that distinction appears to be based upon weekly departures, not exactly a helpful metric. Just because you’re getting bigger doesn’t mean you’re doing well. This summer was a big jump for the airline, so we’ll see if the results are positive or not. Chances are, summer may be ok if enough people find that the airline exists, but when demand falls off into the fall, that’s when it will get tough. Personally, I’m hoping Primera makes it until next year. Then we can see if that Birmingham plan might work.

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