Norwegian Air Shuttle: Using IT to lower costs, increase revenue, and start new businesses

(This case was written for an BSG Concours/nGenera report in March 2008, but never used. I found it while writing a report on the Norwegian IT industry, and publish it here because, well, I need a place to put it. And it is interesting – it succinctly exemplifies a company that uses IT for lowering cost (increasing the bottom line), for expanding in its current market (expanding the top line), and for creating new businesses.)

Norwegian Air Shuttle is the fastest growing low-cost airline in Europe. Its growth is built on smart market moves – supported by even smarter IT applications and use.

A Norwegian plane - white paint is cheap

Norwegian Air Shuttle was originally a small airline company leasing planes and crew – called a "wet lease" in the business – to Braathen’s, Norway’s second largest airline. When Braathen’s was acquired by industry leader SAS in 2001, it looked like the game was over for Norwegian – it had funding for less than three months’ operations.

clip_image005Bjrn Kjos, lawyer and former fighter pilot, had agreed to help the company through what everyone thought was going to be a managed bankruptcy. Instead, Kjos sought out new investors – Norwegian fishing fleet owners, accustomed to high risk and equally high rewards. With his background as a pilot and sanguine, jovial personality, Kjos personified opposition to the somewhat bureaucratic and monopolistic SAS and became popular both with his employees, the public and the regulating politicians.

The new company’s strategy was simple: To offer direct flights between city-pairs not served by SAS, and keep costs low through efficient processes and a flexible organization. Kjos was not a proponent of information technology, but knew he needed a CIO, and in 2002 hired Hans Petter Aanby, an experienced IT manager from SAS.

Hans Petter AanbyAanby needed to establish IT as a contributor to the business, and so set out to first harvest the low-hanging fruit. First of all, the company’s distribution costs were too high: Most sales came over the telephone or through travel agents, with average transaction cost of more than $35 per ticket. Aanby moved the whole process online in April 2003, removing anything confusing from the web site. The company was one of the first in the business to have customers print out their own (bar-coded) boarding passes, which simplified check-in and saved boarding time. Eventually, 85% of orders would come over the web, and only 1% through the call center. This was achieved with a small IT department and smart use of small consulting companies.

image Having demonstrated an ability to lower costs, Aanby now, with the title of CIO and EVP of Business Development, set out to increase sales. A new architecture that would allow growth in complexity without growth in costs was proposed to the board in late 2003. Airline prices vary, but it can be very hard for customers to see when it is cheap to fly. Many airlines make it hard for customers to find the cheap flights, but Aanby went the other way, giving the customers a calendar-based view of flights with prices shown. Since flight reservation systems are not set up for this kind of information extraction – each query is treated as a potential booking, thus influencing demand figures – Norwegian had to build their own database of flights and prices extracted from the transaction-oriented Amadeus reservation system. The customers responded enthusiastically, since it made it easy to change travel plans to take advantage of lower prices. The application was sold to Amadeus, and the competition eventually had to follow Norwegian’s lead and provide their own low-price calendars.

As Norwegian expanded (eventually flying more passengers outside Norway than inside,) the next step was to establish a new business out of their customer base and transaction platform: Bank Norwegian, an Internet bank that went into operation in the Fall of 2007. Drawing on a satisfied customer set, an experienced IT capability and a sophisticated, yet lean architecture, Norwegian figures it can take the transaction growth and reliability demands a banking application requires.

Kjos, now a converted IT buff, constantly talks about how Norwegian’s IT infrastructure allows the company to expand without growing costs. In August 2007, with a fleet of 22 airplanes, the company placed an order for 42 new Boeing 737 airplanes, for delivery over a five year period.

Norwegian continues to look for areas where IT can make a difference. The airline industry is extremely competitive, and the game is all about being low-cost, yet effective in how talent is employed. Norwegian consciously trains its employees to be capable of performing many tasks – any flight attendant can also do check-in or reservations, for instance, thus enabling the company to use the labor outside the 600-700 hours in the air regular flight personnel can work.

For Norwegian, the trick has to flood the company with IT support before anyone has had time to hire people. And as Aanby has put it: In Norwegian, there are really only two employee categories that are paid above market average: Pilots – and IT people.

In 2007, Hans-Petter Aanby was rewarded for his efforts by being awarded the title CIO of the Year by the Norwegian IT Magazine Computerworld.no – and Norwegian has continued to grow since, now profitably expanding its business while most of its competitors, particularly the traditional airlines, are struggling.

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One thought on “Norwegian Air Shuttle: Using IT to lower costs, increase revenue, and start new businesses

  1. frank morrell

    I bought my first computor in 1987. One thing I learned very quickly was the company I worked for (and most companies) are way behind on technology.
    I am impressed by this company and story. They actually use up to date technology and are using it like it should be used.
    Impressive!

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