The chief executive of Norwegian Air Shuttle, Bjorn Kjos, has announced he is stepping down, effective immediately.

Kjos has been at the helm of Norwegian for 17 years and under his leadership the company has grown from a domestic carrier into one of the biggest low-cost airlines in Europe operating 162 aircraft.

However, Norwegian has struggled financially in recent years, owing to problems with Rolls Royce engines on its Dreamliner fleet, increasing competition in the markets it serves and most recently the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max – which Kjos claimed the airline would charge the manufacturer for.

The carrier has also come out of a period of rapid growth in its long-haul operations, including transatlantic flights to the US and the establishment of a subsidiary airline to serve Argentina.

Norwegian lost £131 million in 2018, but it said recently that its financials are starting to show improvement thanks to a slow-down in growth and the decision to delay deliveries of Airbus aircraft.

British Airways owner International Airline Group (IAG) bought a stake in Norwegian in the hopes of making room for a potential take-over bid, but it dropped all attempts and sold its shares after Norwegian refused several offers.

Kjos, aged 72, is one of the founding partners of the airline and has been CEO since October of 2002. He is a former fighter pilot and holds a degree in law from the University of Oslo. He will remain at the airline in a new role as adviser to the chairman.

Norwegian has appointed CFO Geir Karlsen to act as interim chief exec until it finds a replacement for Kjos. Karlsen was made deputy CEO in April.

Kjos commented: “I am confident that the board of directors will find the best qualified successor to lead the next chapters of the Norwegian story together with the top management team. Leaving the exciting future tasks to a new CEO and taking on a new challenge as an advisor is a set-up I am very happy with. I look forward to spending more time working on specific strategic projects that are crucial to the future success of Norwegian.”

Chairman Niels Smedegaard said: “Bjorn has played an unprecedented role in Norwegian’s success. His vision of offering affordable fares for all, combined with his enthusiasm and innovating spirit, has revolutionised the way people travel for pleasure and for business, not least between the continents. Bjorn is definitely one of the most influential European entrepreneurs of our time.”

Commenting on the challenges Norwegian faces in returning to profitability, Smedegaard added: “We have to ensure that Norwegian is well prepared and positioned to handle volatile markets and unexpected events. It is crucial that we continue to deliver on our cost reduction initiatives and that we constantly ensure that we have a route portfolio that yields profit. It is also important that the new CEO develops and organisation that embraces continued improvement and operational excellence.”

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