'Cheap' foreign airlines come at the cost of safety, workers' rights
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Foreign corporations that refuse to play by the rules are hijacking America’s aviation industry right before our eyes, and it is time that the flying public and middle-class workers demand that their safety and jobs which pay a livable wage come before the interests of foreign airline executives.

This demand has become more urgent than ever as an Obama administration decision granting foreign air carrier status to Norwegian Air International (NAI) is set to go into effect on Jan. 29.

Why the U.S. Department of Transportation approved Norwegian’s application has mystified aviation stakeholders given that it is a flagrant violation of existing trade agreements.


Specifically, the U.S.-EU Open Skies Agreement sets forth the rules by which airlines are expected to abide when conducting trans-Atlantic operations.

Those rules not only encourage and promote fair competition, but also protect consumers and employees. It would seem that NAI CEO Bjorn Kjos believes the agreement should apply to everyone but him and his subsidiary.

In order to skirt the U.S.-EU trade agreement, Norwegian Air Shuttle, NAI’s parent company, developed a scheme that feels more appropriate for an “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel than a safety-critical business like an airline.

The scheme works like this: NAI has applied to become an Irish airline, but will only offer token service from Ireland. Under what has become known as a flag-of-convenience (FOC) scheme, NAI has the freedom to use a separate company in, for example, Singapore that would “rent” individual employees from countries like Malaysia.

Many of those rented employees would likely be based in yet another country, such as Thailand. Such schemes have come into fashion because they allow a corporation to circumvent their home country’s regulatory, labor, and tax laws.

For the flying public, who has come to rely on the safety of the National Airspace System, this scheme utterly fails the common sense test specific to operating an airline. Carriers that play by the rules are subject to extensive government oversight of every facet of their operation, however, NAI’s machination makes it all but impossible to determine who bears responsibility for this critical oversight.

Conventional wisdom suggests that when everyone is in charge, no one is. Unquestionably, safety compliance, passenger rights, and fair employee treatment are too important to be left to chance.

The NAI scheme definitively proves Kjos has taken to heart his position on running an airline: “If I was a politician, I wouldn’t give a sh*t about the airline side.” He added: “We have exported all our industry to the far east.”

He obviously believes he can make more money for himself and his fellow executives by playing fast and loose with American trade policy.

To no one’s surprise, Kjos has claimed American and EU carriers are afraid of competition, but that is nonsense.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association (SWAPA), led by one of the co-authors of this piece, to date, has neither objected to a foreign air carrier’s applications nor protested Norwegian Air Shuttle’s operations to and from the U.S.

We readily acknowledge that competition is good for consumers and necessary for a healthy and vibrant aviation industry. The distinction here is that NAI’s scheme is not competition: It is a gimmick that favors overseas corporations, places passengers at risk, and puts middle-class American jobs squarely in the crosshairs.

With time running out, SWAPA and their NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots (NJASAP) peers have joined together to urge the Trump administration to axe a bad trade deal and to put U.S. jobs and consumers first by reversing NAI’s permit approval.

Existing trade agreements like Open Skies are worthless if government officials fail to uphold the language and spirit of the agreement — and to apply it equally.

Moreover, it is time for the American public and Congress to mobilize by standing together and sending a strong message to foreign airlines and corporations: Rule-breaking gimmicks that jeopardize safety and ship middle-class American jobs overseas just will not fly here.

Capt. Jon Weaks is the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association (SWAPA), the sole bargaining unit for the more than 8,500 pilots of Southwest Airlines.

FO Pedro Leroux is the president of the NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots (NJASAP), which represents the professional interests of the 3,000-plus pilots who fly in the service of NetJets Aviation, Inc.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.