- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2014

The nation’s largest pilots’ union Monday called on the Obama administration to reject a new European airline’s application to offer low-cost transatlantic flights between the U.S. and Europe, warning the budget carrier is trying to skirt U.S. safety and labor regulations.

The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), joined by the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department and the European Cockpit Association, called upon the Department of Transportation to reject the application of Norwegian Air International, which they argue will operate under a “flag of convenience” business model that does not ensure proper oversight or labor standards.

“The Department of Transportation must exercise its authority under the U.S.-EU Air Transport Agreement and deny Norwegian Air International’s request to fly to and from the United States,” said Capt. Lee Moak, ALPA’s president. “NAI’s business model violates the principles of the agreement and is not in the U.S. public interest.”

While Norwegian has registered its other existing lines in Norway, the company is basing its latest international line — offering tickets as low as $99 — in Ireland.

Critics of the application say that by registering in Ireland but not flying there, Norwegian Air is trying to ensure that inspectors can’t provide proper oversight of staff training or aircraft safety.

Additionally, staff for the new route are being recruited from Singapore by a company based in Bangkok, Thailand, which critics allege allows the airline to skirt expensive taxes and labor requirements.

ALPA Airport and Ground Environment Group Chairman and Delta pilot Steve Jangelis said in an interview that this kind of business model has already caused serious problems in the bus and cruise industry, but taking it airborne would pose more serious security threats.

“Would the mayor be happy if a taxi driver shows up at Orlando International Airport who is licensed in Panama, who has a vehicle built by Chevy in Detroit, but yet is trained in Argentina [and who] then has license plates from Singapore? Would they find that acceptable? They obviously would not,” Mr. Jangelis said.

Norwegian Air officials argue that U.S. opposition stems from a fear of competition and have denounced the ALPA’s charges.

“The legacy carriers did everything in their power to stop low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines [from entering] the domestic skies. Now history is repeating itself as an airline from Norway is taking on the big guys in order to offer everyone affordable flights across the Atlantic,” NAI spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen said. “If the authorities listen to the legacy carriers and the unions, the losers will be customers, who will be left with no other option than airlines that offer astronomic fares and poor in-flight service. The American people deserve to have a choice.”

Mr. Sandaker-Nielsen added that Norwegian Air registered its new line in Ireland to access future traffic rights to and from the European Union. Norway is not an EU member, but the company contends the country’s labor conditions are completely up to international standards.

“Norwegian always follows the rules and regulations in all the markets we operate, offering competitive wages and conditions. We assume that our U.S. competitors do the same when hiring crews in, for instance, South America.”

However, ALPA authorities say that they are not against competition, and in fact welcome it from Norwegian’s other airliners that are correctly registered.

“We encourage competition,” Mr. Jangelis said. “If they’re going to fly from Norway to the United States, register in Norway. Deal with those safety issues. Deal with those labor issues. Deal with those tax implications of working in Norway.”

In its own comments to Transportation, NAI argued that the U.S. cannot unilaterally deny the application.

According to Norwegian, both the U.S. and EU delegation chairs during the Open Skies negotiations agreed that one party could not unilaterally deny an application of the other party without consulting them.

But U.S. officials say that this is false, and that America should not have to consult with foreign powers before turning down a new airline.

“Congress never intended for a foreign country to wield veto power over the Department of Transportation or its authority to deny or allow a foreign airline to fly to and from the United States,” Capt. Moak said.

In a press release, Norwegian Air blasted the transportation department for holding the application for almost six months, “the longest of any other similar carrier’s application.”

“We look forward to DOT promptly granting NAI’s application to bring air service to the U.S., so consumers can finally begin realizing the benefits of competition — including lower fares,” the Norwegian statement read.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed strong opposition to Norwegian’s application to operate in the U.S.

In June the House unanimously passed an amendment to the transportation bill that included language suggesting the Norwegian Air bid be blocked.

The new Norwegian line would offer flights as low as $99 one-way to Norway, operating on Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The DOT must accept or approve NAI’s application for exemption from the standards in the agreement by August 31, but it could wait longer to make a final decision on whether the carrier can operate within the U.S.

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