When Norwegian Air Shuttle launched budget flights to America in 2013, it forced the airline industry to look again at a market segment dismissed by many pundits as commercially fanciful: low-cost long-haul flying.
Six years on, it’s hard to say whether the gamble has paid off. The airline’s balance sheet is weaker than when it only served short-haul markets. Early competitors like WOW Air and Primera Air have collapsed. Yet Norwegian’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners still criss-cross the Atlantic daily – holding their own against a new breed of low-cost long-haul services run by Europe’s legacy carriers.
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The decision by Norwegian’s founder, Bjørn Kjos, to relinquish financial and managerial control of the company has meanwhile put a younger generation of executives – including his son, Lars Ola Kjos – in charge of strategic planning.
And their opening gambit appears no less ambitious or transformative than the elder Kjos’s foray into long-haul operations.
A world away from the business of flight, Norwegian has invested in a cryptocurrency exchange, Norwegian Block Exchange (NBX), which is due to open its virtual doors next month. NBX will make cryptocurrency the most attractive payment channel for Norwegian’s flights – offering discounted fares and blockchain-encoded perks in a bid to hasten what management see as the inevitable decline of the old-world banking system.
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More immediately, the airline believes this shift to digital currencies will cut costs and release it from the stranglehold of financial middlemen.
“Now that we have made the exchange, we see that it could be the heart of a complete new ecosystem,” Stig Aleksander Kjos-Mathisen, NBX’s managing director and the son-in-law of Bjørn Kjos, told me in an interview at Norwegian’s headquarters in Oslo.