Bjorn Tore Larsen bought a travel agency when he was just 18 years old and developed what was an early version of a niche market. And in 2021, the Norwegian entrepreneur launched a transatlantic low-cost airline, Norse Atlantic Airways.
In doing so he became one of the few people ever to go from being a travel advisor to an airline CEO – though there was an interesting path in between.
After leaving school at 16, Larsen went to sea where he learned, he said, that the crews knew more than the company’s owners about shipping. He kept to that lesson all of his life. At 18, he bought a travel agency near Oslo and soon developed a specialty in maritime crews because, naturally, they traveled continuously to different ports. The agency soon had a large share of that market.
At around the same time, Larsen started a shipping company and he has been in that business ever since, very successfully so with thousands of employees globally. He sold the travel agency in 1993 and pretty much stayed out of the travel industry for almost 30 years.
In 2021, with the demise of Norwegian Air’s transatlantic service (the carrier still flies in Europe), he again saw an opportunity. The airline had to ground 15 new Boeing Dreamliner aircraft, making them available for a low price. With no airline experience, Larsen, along with some airline veterans including some from Norwegian Air, bought the planes and launched Norse Atlantic, with Larsen as the majority owner.
In 2022, the carrier launched its first route from Oslo to New York. Since then, it has continued to add gateways in Europe and North America, most recently adding Paris to New York.
Current routes include New York (JFK) to Oslo, Paris and London; and Oslo to Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles. Coming over the next few months are London to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston; and Rome to New York. All flights are on sale now.
Larsen is continually asked why he might succeed where other low-cost, transatlantic carriers have not and he says the secret is in a simple business model – only nonstop long-haul flights and concentrating for now on North America and Europe.
In addition, there is a strong focus on costs. According to Larsen, most airline expenses are around logistics and overhead and he is keeping those to a minimum. As a result, he can offer fares, he said, half that of competitors while paying competitive wages to his employees (Paris-New York flights start at $289 one way).
And it is those employees, in addition to the low fares, that are making the difference. As he did with crews when he began his shipping company, Larsen said he listens to his flight attendants and pilots to determine which way to go in delivering service. “It’s not the planes,” he said, “it’s the people.” While there is nothing specifically Norwegian about the service, said Larsen, the plane’s livery is influenced by that heritage, including Viking graphics on aircraft tails.
While the airline will mostly be leisure-oriented, Larsen said it is a great alternative for business travelers because they appreciate the value. He said he is getting business from travel advisors, especially in the group space where, he said, “we make it attractive for groups to travel with us.” While the planes do have 56 premium seats out of a total of 338, there are no ultra-luxury options because, said Larsen, “you don’t need a lie-flat bed to fly from London to New York.”
Looking ahead, Larsen said Norse Atlantic will fly “where and when people want to go,” including Asia and the Caribbean with seasonal service depending on the market. While he has leased five of his 15 planes to another airline, he will get them back in time for more routes in 2024.
Although there is no loyalty program yet, Larsen is looking into developing one if it can be made profitable. The airline has virtual interline agreements with Spirit Airlines, easyJet and Norwegian Air, which provides over 600 weekly connections between European and U.S. hubs.
Asked what it has been like to run an airline, Larsen, himself a pilot, smiled and said, “I’m living the dream.”
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