N.J. Republican lines up with unions against Obama airline decision
As published by Jonathan D. Salant in the Newark Star-Ledger
A request by a new international airline to fly to the U.S. pits the Obama administration against organized labor and its Republican ally: U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey
The chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, LoBiondo and others introduced legislation to prevent Norwegian Air International from flying to the U.S. The lawmakers contend that the airline’s business model violates labor protections embedded in the U.S.-European Union agreement that ended most barriers to trans-Atlantic flights.
“It’s an airline set up to put American jobs at risk,” said LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.).
The new airline is a subsidiary of Norwegian Air Shuttle, a European-based low-cost carrier that last year flew 26 million passengers to 132 destinations, including Kennedy Airport. It would compete with international flights out of Newark Airport.
The bill would prevent the U.S. Transportation Department from approving Norwegian Air International’s certification. The agency has given a tentative OK with a final decision expected later this month.
“This is the future of the airline industry on the table,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s transportation trades department.
The airline and its allies argue that the unions and the legacy air carriers fear competition. Norwegian Air’s new subsidiary will be based in Ireland to take advantage of the U.S.-European Union agreement.
A consultant to Norwegian Air, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Byerly, said the bill sponsors “more or less bought the lines from the union opponents of NAI, hook, line and sinker.”
The unions say Norwegian Air picked Ireland to take advantage of less restrictive labor laws there, and will use lower-paid crews based in Asia.
“It will set up a very quick race to the bottom of a flag of convenience model, the same model that destroyed U.S. shipping,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, whose 50,000 members include those at United Airlines, the largest airline at Newark Airport.
Those lower labor costs will give Norwegian Air an unfair advantage, something that the U.S.-European Union agreement was supposed to prevent, union members said.
“They’re coming to the field with corked bats and a locker full of steroids,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and member of the Allied Pilots Association.
Hundreds of union members rallied May 12 before crossing Pennsylvania Avenue and picketing in front of the White House. They argued that the Obama administration disregarded the labor protections in order to approve the application.
“They’re circumventing the letter and intent of the open skies agreement,” said Capt. Halli Mulei, a United pilot and member of the Air Line Pilots Association.
The DOT said the labor provision “warranted proceeding with caution and careful consideration” but was not grounds to reject the application.
Former U.S. Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari, however, said that the labor section was a “very critical part” of the agreement. “Thls was an issue from day one,” he said.
In trying to block the DOT action, the unions enlisted LoBiondo’s support.
He has received $240,250 from labor for his re-election, more than any other member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. His AFL-CIO lifetime 53 percent score is higher than any other House Republican except Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.).
The airline unions, which have given $2.8 million to federal candidates for the 2016 elections, have plenty of other allies on Capitol Hill. In November 2014, 167 House members, including Smith and six other current New Jersey lawmakers, said the airline’s business model “would be detrimental to the future of the U.S. aviation industry, aviation workers, and our national economy.” Separately, 38 senators, including both Robert Menendez and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) offered similar concerns in March 2014.
United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines also asked the DOT to reject the application.
Legislation would shift air traffic control to a private corporation from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Congress shouldn’t follow the lead of the big airlines, said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group.
“It’s time for Congress to revisit the calculation that when it comes to air travel policy, what’s good for the legacy carriers is what’s good for the system,” Grella said.
Grella joined other supporters of Norwegian Air’s application on a conference call with reporters two hours before the union protest.
“Some special interests, having gained the benefits of open skies for themselves, now seek to pull up the ladder,” said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition. Norwegian Air “will inject competition and lower fares.”
Byerly said the trans-Atlantic flights will use European and U.S.-based flight crews and already has 400 cabin crew employees here. He also said the Irish Aviation Authority is well-qualified to regulate the airline.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, said he wasn’t convinced.
A bill co-sponsor with LoBiondo, DeFazio said he worried that if crews and maintenance are dispersed to low-wage, low-regulation countries, government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration may not be able to ensure airline safety and security.
“The ticket may be cheaper,” DeFazio said. “You just may not get there alive.”