Simon Calder: Norwegian's cheap, but Korean's pitch perfect

The man who pays his way

Despite the efforts of America's aviation establishment, a Boeing 787 in the colours of Norwegian will take off from Gatwick on Wednesday – destination Los Angeles. The budget airline is starting flights between the UK and US, but has faced a barrage of opposition over the business structure. The US Air Line Pilots' Association asked regulators in Washington DC to block the proposed flights, describing the airline as a "sketchy foreign competitor" and pointing to its unusual practices. These include setting up an EU subsidiary in Ireland (even though Norwegian only ever flies over the Republic, rather than landing there), and recruiting flight crew under Singaporean employment law. The airline rejects the criticism, saying: "Safety has always been, is, and will always be, our main priority. Norwegian offers competitive wages and conditions in all markets we operate in."

Initially a single plane will do all the heavy lifting. After the long haul to LA, the jet returns to Sussex on Thursday in time to fly to New York. It turns around at JFK and comes back for Friday's Independence Day inaugural flight to Fort Lauderdale. This southern Florida city is not currently served from the UK and is well worth 48 hours of your time. The new route also offers cut-price access to Miami, 20 miles south. Norwegian's fares are typically one-fifth lower than others' prices to the Sunshine State's biggest city. So, Nordic "no-frills"? No, because although you will pay extra if you want to check in luggage and dine en route, Norwegian is the only scheduled airline flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from the UK to Florida – a cut above the weary old 747s of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic that serve Miami and Orlando respectively.

Which led me to wonder where one can find the most luxurious economy class? A highly subjective question, for which the quick answer is: an airline so unpopular that its cabins are near-empty, and you can stretch out across several seats. But enough of the late (in both senses) Olympic Airways. To restate the question: assuming a standard seat on a full, long-haul flight, which airline provides the most agreeable service?

The charter airlines deserve an honourable mention. Thomas Cook used to fly some 757s between the UK and Canada on which it provided a 36-inch seat pitch; every seat felt as roomy as an emergency exit row. Thomson still puts BA and Virgin to shame by offering 33 inches as standard on long-haul Boeings. While BA and Virgin are top-class carriers in many respects, their seat pitch is a miserly 31 inches.

Air New Zealand offers an inch or two more legroom and impressively rich in-flight entertainment. The Kiwi carrier also gives the chance to spend a bit more and book a "Skycouch" (three seats together, assigned to two people, with a lip that extends to create something like a short bed). But while most airlines, such as BA, put nine seats abreast on the Boeing 777, Air New Zealand – along with Emirates – squeezes in 10.

Ten-abreast is the usual configuration in the Airbus A380, the world's biggest airborne people-carrier. The clever design and subdued engine noise makes it feel more luxurious than 20th-century aircraft. With only 11 airlines flying the "SuperJumbo," the search for indulgence is swiftly narrowed down – and, without taking a tape measure to the cabin, the airlines' publicity suggests only one offers a generous 34-inch seat pitch. The winner is: Korean Air, which puts only 407 seats on a plane certified to handle more than twice that number.

Business means Quest

What about the best business class? The man who knows best is Richard Quest, presenter of Quest Means Business for CNN International and occasional columnist for The Independent on Sunday. I caught up with him at Heathrow after he had just flown the Atlantic five times straight, comparing the business-class cabins on the five main UK-US contenders: American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, United and Virgin. Yet his view on which carrier is the leader for overall business-class product is none of the above. Instead, Quest goes East.

"Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific," he responded without a moment's pause. "It's all about privacy ... it's the amount of real-estate these airlines give to individual passengers with a quality of service. You view it as the total package – put it all together and SQ [Singapore] and CX [Cathay] are at the top in biz."

First for less

If even business class isn't good enough for you, with British Airways you can get a free upgrade to First – but only on three transatlantic routes from London and only if you are lucky.

From Heathrow to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Vancouver, British Airways currently flies 747s. Indeed, BA is the biggest operator of the aircraft type in the world. However, these jets are anachronistic, consuming absurd amounts of fuel compared with the "big twins" and the A380. So, BA is gradually retiring its Jumbo fleet. The airline is also upgrading its first-class long-haul product across the fleet. This is not happening on the aircraft that serve these three second-division destinations; those Jumbo jets are soon to be parked in the Californian desert, and it is not worth the expense of refreshing the interior. Therefore, some fortunate flyers to Vegas will find they are allocated seats at the front, where they normally cost nearly twice as much. But you cannot self-allocate these seats – I tried on a test booking, to no avail. And that's about as close as I'll ever get to First Class.

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