Norwegian Air bid to fly to US riles aviation industry

A bid to gain access to airports in the U.S. and European Union by Norwegian Airlines has riled the American aviation industry.

Norwegian Air is attempting to gain access to airports that are covered under the U.S. and European Union’s “Open Skies” agreement by registering its airplanes in Ireland, which is a member of the EU.

The Scandinavian company says it will be able to offer transatlantic flights for as low as $150 each way if its effort is approved by the Department of Transportation.

Critics are urging the DOT to block the application, however, arguing Norwegian Air is able to offer lower ticket prices because its skirts labor laws that are normally applied to international air carriers.

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Norwegian Air CEO Bjorn Kjos told The Hill on Friday that larger airlines were trying to block his company’s entry into the U.S. and European Union markets because they were scared of having more competition for transatlantic passengers. 

Kjos said passengers flying from Scandinavia to the Canary Islands on his airline are currently paying “one-third of what you pay to fly from Europe to [New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport].

“The flying time is only one hour shorter,” Kjos said. “It shouldn’t cost that much to fly across the Atlantic.”

Kjos attributed his airline’s ability to offer lower international fares to its deployment of more fuel efficient airplanes like the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” and the Airbus A350, which is scheduled to begin flying later this year.

“When the Dreamliner came, the figures added up and we could fly [transatlantic] at 50 percent of the cost of our competitors,” Kjos said.

Kjos dismissed the problems that were associated with the launch of the Dreamliner, saying he thinks it is “going to be a fine airplane” that is helping to make his company’s business model profitable.

Opponents of Norwegian Air’s attempt to increase it transatlantic flight presence are not as enthusiastic about the company’s proposed expansion, however.

A bipartisan group of 38 senators wrote a letter to the DOT this week asking them to deny Norwegian Air’s application for approval under the U.S. and EU Open Skies agreement.

The lawmakers argue that the airline’s admission to the Open Skies agreement would undermine the entire premise of the pact.

“[Norwegian Air’s] structure raises several serious questions about what employment protections will apply to NAI’s workforce,” the senators wrote. “We strongly urge you to examine this arrangement to ensure its full compliance with the U.S.-EU Open Skies Agreement labor provisions and consistency with U.S. law.”

The senators have drawn strong support for their position from aviation industry labor groups. 

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) called Norwegian Air’s plan to register planes in Ireland to gain access to Open Skies airports a “scheme” that would “ultimately drive U.S. air carriers out of the competition and would profit at the expense of tens of thousands of U.S. airline jobs.

“AFA continues to firmly oppose any attempt to erode the careers of U.S. Flight Attendants who have worked for nearly seven decades to build an enduring legacy,” the union said in statement.

AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind agreed.

“If NAI is the face of liberalized U.S.-EU aviation trade, we’ll take a pass,” Wytkind said in a statement. “The Obama Administration must reject NAI’s application as it violates our laws and circumvents the U.S.-EU trade agreement.”

Kjos said opponents of its application are over exaggerating their complaints about its operations, saying the airline follows labor laws “wherever a crew is based.

“If we’re employing an American crew, we have to pay them the same as other [airlines], or else they wouldn’t have started working for us,” the Norwegian Air CEO said.

“We pay absolutely the absolutely the same salaries as everybody else,” Kjos continued.