Norwegian Air faces ever more opposition as it tries to increase traffic across the Atlantic.
If you’ve been waiting for Norwegian Air’s deeply discounted flights between Boston and Ireland this summer, don’t pack your bags just yet. Norwegian has been waiting for the U.S. Department of Transportation to greenlight the new route for two years, and while the agency is wrapping up its work this week, it hasn’t said when it’ll make a final decision.
What’s the holdup? Norwegian Air, after all, already flies from the U.S. to Europe, via London Gatwick and several Scandinavian gateways, and it also offers seasonal flights from the U.S. to the French Caribbean. But those flights are operated by a Norwegian company called Norwegian Air Shuttle; Norwegian has another subsidiary, based in Ireland—Norwegian Air International—that was set up to take advantage of greater freedoms out of that nation. (Norway is not a member of the European Union; Ireland is.) And it’s this newer company, NAI, that’s the launch pad for a raft of new flights from Irish airports at cut-rate fares and the source of all the ongoing controversy.
That’s because a powerful coalition of U.S. airlines and their employee unions are labeling this offshoot operation as a major threat to the U.S. aviation industry, charging that it will pay low wages and, as one union official said, could cost thousands of U.S. jobs (allegedly because some U.S. carriers would drop routes rather than compete with this interloper). And they’ve gotten the ear of politicians—this is, after all, an election year—with Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both urging the DOT to reject the new services. In a statement on his website, Bernie Sanders wrote: “The U.S. Department of Transportation should not be rewarding [Norwegian Air International] with a foreign air carrier permit that would allow it to undercut the wages and benefits of airline workers throughout this country… We must do everything we can to prevent a global race to the bottom in the airline industry.”
“We think it’s a very dangerous situation,” said Ed Wytkind, head of the transportation trades division of the AFL-CIO. “They will go for the cheapest employees.”
Although the DOT recently issued a tentative decision in favor of Norwegian, a bill opposing the airline has landed in the House of Representatives and is garnering support. Norwegian has struck back, however. “Our opponents have created a wildly inaccurate fear-mongering situation,” said spokesman Anders Lindstrom. “We have filed a document with the U.S. pledging that NAI’s U.S. flights would be operated by U.S. and European crew,” he said, adding that the employees are paid market wages. He also claimed Norwegian already has more U.S.-based crew than any other foreign airline and plans to add additional American crew.
With all the heated rhetoric, it can be hard to sort out the facts, but one that’s often cited by Norwegian and its supporters (consumer group Travelers United among them) is that the airline business has become highly concentrated. In fact, the three major U.S. international carriers (Delta, American, and United) and their alliance partners control roughly 80 percent of the airline passenger traffic across the North Atlantic.
“The union efforts and claims are totally misdirected and are bad for consumers and the national economy,” said Charlie Leocha, head of Travelers United. Asked by Condé Nast Traveler to comment, a DOT spokeswoman would only say that once all the comments are in this week, there’s no deadline for the agency to act. In other words, super-cheap flights to Europe may not arrive in time for this year’s summer season.