“The Norwegians are coming!”
That’s hardly a call to send Americans scurrying to the barricades. But if a labor union has its way, American travelers would face fewer choices and higher fares for reasons just as silly. So far, they appear to be winning the war, with the Republican-controlled House adopting a package last week containing an amendment from Reps. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) designed to prevent a Norwegian low-cost airline from operating in the United States.
This week, the Senate is considering a three-bill minibus, which includes transportation spending, and a Senate amendment mirroring DeFazio-Westmoreland is being sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Members of the Senate will have to prove who they really represent: the American people or a union that doesn’t want to see Norwegian Air offer cheap flights to Europe.
Unions on both sides of the Atlantic have alleged bogus labor violations by Norwegian Air —accusations which the chief regulator at the Irish Aviation Authority dismissed as “rubbish.” The Department of Transportation now faces a clear choice—side with American travelers by approving Norwegian Air’s application or cave in to politically connected special interests that stoop to xenophobic pandering.
The union’s advertising campaign is as ugly as it is disingenuous. One ad in The Washington Post asks, “Can we really trust a foreign airline with a convoluted business scheme that threatens the U.S. airline industry and its employees?” And the rhetoric doesn’t end there. Other ads denounce NAI for domiciling in Ireland, while hiring pilots from Singapore and flight crews from Thailand. The horror!
What has made the Air Line Pilots Association go unhinged? Apparently, the union feels threatened by Norwegian Air’s low-cost business model, which allows it to offer lower fares than its U.S. competitors—as low as $150 each way between the United States and Europe. Norwegian Air’s spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen responded to the union’s claims, saying, “ALPA is running a big campaign, spending a lot of money to make slanderous allegations about a small Norwegian company. Consumers love us; I guess that is what they are afraid of.”
A more competitive air travel market would benefit American travelers through lower prices. And that’s precisely what the Air Line Pilots Association fears. The union claims to support American workers and consumers. In reality, it supports a group of highly paid members operating in a highly regulated market. Air Line Pilots Association represents over 50,000 high-paid U.S. and Canadian pilots, with the U.S. pilots earning a median wage of nearly $130,000 plus benefits.
But back to the 33 Republicans who have joined the union’s anti-consumer crusade. The most disturbing aspect of this episode is how relatively little it can cost to campaign for protectionist policies. The leader of the Republican support for the Air Line Pilots Association, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), recently received $7,000 from ALPA and United Transportation Union (UTU) PACs, both of which represent airline workers. Of the other 32 Republicans, 26 have received ALPA and UTU PAC contributions totaling $203,000 in the 2014 election cycle as of May 19, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The GOP is in the midst of a branding crisis after its crushing defeat in 2012. Reforming to advocate for entrepreneurs and free markets—and fight crony capitalism and corporate welfare—will be critical to the party’s survival. Some, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) understand the importance of this. Unfortunately, however, the GOP has too many of what conservative activist Grover Norquist calls “rat heads in a Coke bottle”—opportunistic politicians who tarnish the whole party with their unprincipled actions.
If Republicans want to remain relevant, they must differentiate themselves from the crony capitalism and government favoritism that led to the GOP debacles of 2006, 2008, and 2012. Sadly, not enough seem to be heeding that lesson. With House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) stunning primary loss to an opponent who ran on an anti-cronyism platform, maybe more Republicans will honor their stated principles. The Senate minibus is the first test.
Scribner is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market, libertarian think tank in Washington, DC. La Corte is a research associate at CEI.