Travelers will be able to fly nonstop from Denver International Airport to Rome starting in March, thanks to a new seasonal route announced Tuesday by budget airline Norwegian.
It’s the first time the Mile High City will have a direct Italian connection, and it comes amid a steep increase in international travel from DIA, which has added nonstop flights to the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Paris and Zurich in the past few years.
But does Norwegian — which has made headlines in recent months because of its financial struggles — even have the aircraft to handle the new Rome connection?
The Scandinavian airline has been known for its rapid growth in the U.S. to Europe market, introducing new routes around the country to places including London, Paris and Barcelona.
Norwegian already has seasonal flights from Denver to London’s Gatwick Airport and to Paris. But those flights aren’t always, as advertised, on the airline’s Boeing 787s.
The cabins’ of the state-of-the-art Dreamliners are pressurized to a lower altitude which is supposed to make travelers feel better when they reach their destination. The airline sells travelers, in part, on this comfort and the planes’ fuel efficiency.
But because of problems with the Rolls Royce engines on Norwegian’s Dreamliners, the airline has had to “wet lease” aircraft to cover some of its trans-Atlantic routes, which means Norwegian’s passengers sometimes travel on planes owned and operated by a third party. Denver is no exception.
Norwegian has been at times using a Wamos Air Airbus A330-200 to shuttle passengers on its Denver-London route. Wamos is a Spanish air charter company that’s owned in part by Royal Caribbean Cruises.
In 2019, at least 87 of Norwegian’s flights from London to Denver were operated by Wamos out of 129 total. The Paris-route trips were not affected, according to Denver International Airport.
“The plan, of course, is always to have a Dreamliner,” said Anders Lindström, a spokesman for Norwegian. “That’s the intention, and that’s why we’ve scaled back for the winter so much to make sure that we don’t have a single wet-leased aircraft in operation for winter 2020. And we are hoping most of the things will be resolved with Rolls Royce with the engine issue.”
Norwegian also owns 18 of the still-grounded 737 Max airplanes.
Lindström said the aircraft issues part of what has kept Norwegian from expanding further. He explained that Norwegian can either cancel a flight and upset thousands of passengers or can get them to their final destination on a rented aircraft, choosing the latter whenever possible.
“It hurts the brand and we are very aware of that,” he said, “and it costs us a lot of extra money. We do everything we can to avoid it.”
Norewegian has also cut back on some of its routes as it prioritizes sustainability and profitability over growth. For instance, the airline’s flights to London and Paris were supposed to be year-round, but Norwegian has made them seasonal.
“The demand is just not there for the winter to have a sustainable operation,” Lindström said. “That’s not just Denver. A lot of the cities, we cut back: Austin, Boston, Chicago.”
Lindström, however, said Norwegian’s latest quarter was its best ever and cited the airline’s recent introduction of a credit card and a codeshare partnership with JetBlue as examples of its upward trend.
Lindström also said Denver presents a major growth opportunity for Norwegian and hinted at the possibility of a Barcelona connection in 2021.
“We are very pleased with our route performances out of Denver,” he said.
Norwegian’s Denver-to-Rome flights will begin March 31 and operate until Oct. 23. They will happen on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One-way fares begin at $249 for economy.
The transatlantic flight will take about 11 hours. Norwegian says the Denver-Rome route will be operated on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner with 35 premium seats and 309 economy seats. All economy seats on the plane’s Dreamliners have personal in-flight entertainment on demand, USB charging ports and a power adapter.