Have you heard of Primera Air? No? Neither had I, until I looked up flights to New York on Black Friday last year.
Lured by the £325 price tag but unsure of their pedigree, I found an article written by Simon Calder about their air fares being cheaper than WOW Air, despite claims by the latter of £99 flights each way. If they were recommended by an esteemed travel writer, that was validation enough – I booked flights for a May trip to New York, my first time in the city.
Let me say first, it was a good experience. Plenty to work on to truly compete with Norwegian and the heavyweight carriers, but for what I paid, I was happy.
One thing that stood out was that the flight out to Newark wasn’t actually really Primera at all. The flight was in a slightly noisy old Boeing 757 plane and run by National Airlines – whose crew was one of the friendliest I’ve ever met it must be said!
It was obvious that Primera Air’s new planes hadn’t materialised yet, but they had made the crossing work. If I’d been stuck in the UK without a flight, that would have been a different experience altogether.
Interestingly, this has happened with another route they’ve launched. Calder has written again about Primera, and this time it’s the news that four days ago they cancelled their maiden flight between London Stansted and Toronto.
The reason? A ‘delay of aircraft delivery from the manufacturer’. It would seem, then, that the only plane or planes they do have are sustaining the New York route.
If you’re tempted to try out the great value London – New York route, here’s my super quick low down:
Who are Primera Air?
As they say on their website:
‘Ever since starting out in 2003 as a charter provider, we’ve strived towards one thing – excellent air travel services. Our constant attention to detail, innovative spirit and lookout for improvement’ etc etc.
What they don’t say is that they’re owned by an Icelandic company and started out as JetX. They operate out of Scandinavia mostly, as well as Latvia, where they have an operating licence. Toronto appears to be on ice at the moment, but they’ve also launched routes to Boston and Washington DC, competing with Norwegian, and WOW.
Oh, and they like emojis.
You can’t really fault it – I paid £334. That’s with all fees included and a £50 upgrade each way to choose my seat, have a hot meal and throw my luggage in the hold. If I’d chosen to bring my own food and brought only a cabin bag, it would have cost me £234.
Booking and online communications
The actual booking of the flights was pretty standard, albeit I couldn’t choose a meal apart from beef so I had to sort that out with a chat bot before I flew (modern life, eh).
Online communications were pretty spartan, in my first email confirmation for example it didn’t tell me which terminal I’d be flying into, only where I’d fly out from. I googled it, fine, but the whole point of a confirmation is to confirm all the details. Emailing out an FAQ might have been handy.
As I neared 27th April, emails increased, so I’m assuming they hired some more people!
The credit here for the great customer service doesn’t really go to Primera Air but to Swiss Air who pretty much ran their check in desk (helping hyperventilating passengers who hadn’t got their ESTAs) and to the National Airlines crew on the way out.
The crew are normally based in Florida and you could tell by their effervescent, faultless, sunny dispositions. Anyone who has ever been served by Tom from National Airlines will know how great Tom is. Case in point: I asked for a herbal tea with my meal which they didn’t have, so he got me a freebie he’d picked up at a hotel!
Coming back we were in an actual Primera Air plane with a Primera Air crew. They were nice, though dinner was served crazy late. With plenty of people asleep, I could have had almost the whole bread basket if I’d wanted.
Inflight entertainment – make your own
I was one of those people who didn’t organise myself well enough on the way out, and I hadn’t downloaded anything to watch. Why would you need to? Well, unlike Norwegian, Primera doesn’t offer inflight entertainment. Coming back I was much better prepared. I highly recommend Bobby Kennedy for President on Netflix.
The £50 upgrade – is it worth it?
I love plane food, I make no apologies for it, so that was enough to tempt me to upgrade. And the small matter of a giant four wheeled chambray purple hold case I wanted to try out…and choosing my own seat felt like a real luxury. I’m sick of Ryanair’s terrible ‘random middle seat for any single passenger’ routine, and it was nice to have an aisle seat for once.
In terms of whether to upgrade, I would say let it be dictated by whether you need extra luggage. Paying for more luggage at the airport is eyewateringly expensive, as I overheard in Newark.
Flight route and flight times
I don’t know what all the fuss is about Heathrow, I actually rank Stansted as my favourite, followed by Gatwick. Great, then, that Primera fly from Stansted and land at New York’s Newark airport. It’s comparable to Stansted as you can get a train to Penn Station which only takes around 35 mins including the initial shuttle train.
How long in the air? Outward it was about 8 hours, longer than expected because of headwinds. But coming back it was 5 hours 55, which more than made up for the outward time.
You leave Stansted at 5.55pm (arrive 9.20pm all being well) and you depart Newark at 10.50pm (arrive 10.55am if you’re lucky!)
Unlike the Stansted – Toronto route, the Stansted to Newark route seems guaranteed to fly, so don’t be put off by the slightly rocky start! If you love Norwegian, you’ll get along just fine with Primera and save yourself plenty of spending money.
Let me know what you think if you choose Primera Air, and don’t forget to say hi to Tom if you meet him…
Update: on 1st October 2018 Primera Air ceased trading and Norwegian and others had to step in to help stranded passengers. The course of air travel never did run smooth…