July 11, 2019 / 1:27 PM / a month ago

Norwegian Air's Kjos, the fighter pilot turned airline entrepreneur

OSLO (Reuters) - Former fighter pilot Bjoern Kjos stepped down on Thursday as chief executive of Norwegian Air (NWC.OL) after having helped to transform transatlantic travel.

FILE PHOTO: Bjorn Kjos, CEO of Norwegian Group, speaks during the presentation of Norwegian Air first low cost transatlantic flight service from Argentina at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci/File Photo

Kjos, 72, grew Norwegian Air from a small domestic operation with 130 employees and four Fokker aircraft to a global carrier with more than 11,000 employees and 162 aircraft.

In the process he expanded the European budget airline business model to longer-haul destinations, making basic flights cheaper for those prepared to go without frills.

The question is whether the company can survive without him in the pilot’s seat after running up hefty losses and high debts and having to raise 3 billion crowns ($351 million) from shareholders this year.

“This industry generates one or two extraordinary characters who are innovative, inventive and charismatic, and he was one of them,” said James Halstead, managing partner at consultancy Aviation Strategy.

“Full praise to him for the way he built up Norwegian Air form the start. How he went about things is quite extraordinary.”

Kjos will not retire completely but stay on as an adviser to the chairman. He will also keep his stake owned via HBK Invest, the holding company controlled by Kjos and former chairman Bjoern Kise, which own 17.02% of the airline.

“Bjoern has been the driving force behind the business – the big question now is whether Norwegian Air can maintain momentum as he takes a less active role,” Bernstein said in a note to clients.

FAMILY TIES

A mystery novel writer who once flew Cold War-era jet fighters, Kjos has been around planes for almost as long as he could remember.

His father built a private hangar on his land and often took his son with him up in the air, surveying farmland and selling the pictures to local landowners.

Despite having flown Lockheed F-104 Starfighters for the Norwegian air force, Kjos later failed to find work as a commercial pilot with SAS (SAS.ST) and spent years as a lawyer.

But then a friend called for help. SAS had just terminated a regional service contract with the airline he worked for. This left the company with little business and threatened the jobs of several friends.

Kjos searched for investors to bail out the company but raised less than half the required sum, so he sank what he has said was “several million” crowns of his own money into it and in 1993 helped found the new company, now called Norwegian Air Shuttle.

For years they operated out of pre-fabricated barracks on the edge of Fornebu, the then main airport for Oslo. The company slowly built up in its home market and in Scandinavia and overtook the dominant player, state-controlled SAS, in 2015.

SAILING AWAY

Norwegian Air’s planes, known for their trademark red noses, now fly to around 150 destinations.

The company has exported the low-cost model to longer flights, challenging the dominance of more established airlines.

In February it became the biggest non-North American airline to serve New York City, overtaking British Airways.

It has already been on the receiving end of a takeover approach from BA-owner IAG (ICAG.L) and the departure of Kjos is likely to spark further speculation.

“That (low-cost long-haul flights) may be in the end be his legacy even if Norwegian doesn’t survive it - just by doing it showing that it can be done,” said Halstead.

Kjos said he was “not sad at all” to leave his post and go into semi-retirement.

“First I’m going sailing,” a cheerful Kjos told Reuters at his farewell news conference, adding that his first aim was to sail along the southwestern coast of Norway “depending on the winds”.

Writing by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Keith Weir

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