Both sides appeal to Trump in Norwegian Air fight

Both sides appeal to Trump in Norwegian Air fight
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Norwegian Air's controversial effort to fly to the United States is back in the spotlight after the low-cost airline announced 10 new nonstop routes from the east coast to Europe for as low as $65 one-way. 

At the heart of the debate is whether the airline's business practices are a boon or threat to U.S. jobs — and both sides believe they can sway President Trump to their view.

Labor unions and many lawmakers have long argued that Norwegian is undermining American workers and say they're not giving up on their fight to have the airline’s foreign air carrier permit suspended or revoked. 

But Norwegian is brushing aside concerns that the new Trump administration will block their permit, claiming they are following one of Trump's chief campaign promises.

“We are doing exactly what the Trump administration has asked: Buy American and hire American,” Lars Sande, Norwegian’s senior vice president of sales, said in a phone interview with The Hill.

Norwegian has been fighting for years to gain access to more airports in the U.S. and the European Union.

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To do so, it established a subsidiary — Norwegian Air International (NAI) — in Ireland, a member country of the EU. The company currently flies to some airports in the U.S. under the banner of its parent company, Norwegian Air Shuttle. But the airline has sought greater route flexibility in order to offer what are being billed as the “cheapest transatlantic flights ever.” The fares will go up to $99 when the introductory sale period is over.

The Justice and Transportation departments have said that Norwegian’s NAI application, which was deeply controversial in the aviation industry, was one of the most complex cases they ever evaluated.

At issue was whether to consider a clause in the U.S. and EU’s international Open Skies agreement that says “opportunities created by the agreement are not intended to undermine labor standards or the labor-related rights.”

The Obama administration ultimately determined late last year that it did not have the authority to withhold the permit and issued final approval for the flight bid, roiling airlines, union groups and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Critics say the company is attempting to skirt more stringent Norwegian labor and tax laws by establishing itself in Ireland, and claim the airline is undermining competition by hiring pilots contracted through Asia, where labor costs are lower.

But Norwegian, which has agreed not to use any Asia-based cabin crew on its transatlantic flights, maintains it will be predominately using U.S.-based crew and American-made planes for the new routes. It says it chose to establish in Ireland for access to future traffic rights.

Norwegian will be opening a base for its pilots and cabin crew at the T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., and the Stewart International Airport just north of New York City, stationing a Boeing 737-MAX plane at each base, which the company says will create an additional 150 jobs.

The company is also quick to highlight that it employs more U.S.-based crewmembers than any other foreign airline, and that Norwegian’s $18.5 billion order of Boeing aircraft will help support more than 100,000 American jobs.

“We comply with the Open Skies agreement, and we are hiring American employees and buying American aircraft,” Sande said. “[Revoking a permit] has never been done before, as long as you comply with the Open Skies agreements.”

But labor groups are pressuring Trump to dump Norwegian’s flight bid, saying it runs counter to his pro-jobs agenda.

“This is a no-brainer for Trump,” said Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants — CWA. “It’s what he campaigned on. He talks a lot about American workers who were left out to dry, and this is his chance to make it right for hundreds of thousands of U.S. aviation workers.”

The Association of Flight Attendants, the Air Line Pilots Association International, Allied Pilots Association and AFL-CIO are suing to have the decision overturned.

The NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots and Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association reportedly met with Trump last week over the issue. These two groups also protested outside the White House in January to pressure Trump to reverse the Obama administration's decision to allow the Norwegian flights.

“We set this up on a tee for the Trump administration, so they can knock it out of the park, but they don’t seem to want to engage with us,” said Todd Insler, master chairman of the United Airlines branch of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Insler remains skeptical of Norwegian’s low prices.

“It’s a scam,” Insler told The Hill. “They advertise $65 fares, but they’ll nickel and dime you for everything. People will rush to buy these tickets and wind up paying $1,500, because they check bags or want something to eat.”

“You can’t drive a car from Washington, D.C., to New York City for $65. So how do they think they can fly across the world for less than that?” Insler asked. “They can’t sustain that, we can’t sustain that — no one can.”

Critics say the low fares could drive U.S. airlines out of business — or force them to outsource jobs to countries with cheaper labor in order to compete with Norwegian. Either way, American workers will take a hit, they say.

“The future of the U.S. airline industry is at stake,” said Gregg Overman, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association.

“We could lose hundreds of thousands of good jobs — pilots, flight attendants, ground crew,” he added.

In Congress, lawmakers are showing no signs they'll relent.

“You can be sure I will work with my colleagues in Congress to correct our course before the U.S. aviation industry, our national security and other interests suffer serious, permanent harm,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement to The Hill.

DeFazio introduced bipartisan legislation last year aimed at blocking the permit for Norwegian. It would have barred the Department of Transportation from allowing a foreign air carrier to operate between European countries and the U.S. unless the carrier complies with U.S. or EU labor standards.

The measure, which was also backed by Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenMonopoly critics decry ‘Amazon amendment’ Trump’s air traffic control overhaul would trigger spending cuts For Hill staffers, Cruz’s ‘liked’ porn tweet a nightmare scenario MORE (D-Wash.) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), garnered 128 Democratic co-sponsors and 48 Republican supporters but was never brought to the floor.

Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) made a direct plea to Trump to ground Norwegian’s flights. He called the application a “direct violation” of the clause in the Open Skies agreement that protects American jobs and workers.

“Given your commitment to protecting American jobs, I strongly urge you to revoke or suspend the Norwegian Air International foreign air carrier permit,” Reed wrote in a letter to Trump. “By approving NAI’s permit, President Obama stripped U.S. aviation workers of vital job protections and put the entire U.S aviation industry at risk of outsourcing to foreign airlines.”

But while some hoped Trump would bring a new approach to the Norwegian debate, there have been signs that the White House may be apprehensive of overturning the decision.

Trump himself has not spoken out on the issue, and the subject wasn’t broached at an aviation meeting at the White House earlier this month.

Pressed on Norwegian, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said there is “huge economic interest” in the deal.

"I don't want to get ahead of the president on that, but just to be clear, I mean we are talking about U.S jobs both in terms of the people who are serving those planes and the person who's building those planes," Spicer said.