[As published by Emily Woodgate in News in English]
A Civil Aviation Authority (Luftfartstilsynet) inspection at Norwegian Air has revealed 21 breaches of airline regulations and a staggering number of customer complaints. The damning report was another setback for the airline, which faces a blockade led by US airlines and unions and ongoing trouble with its Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
The authorities investigated Norwegian Air in November and uncovered many serious issues, reported newspaper Aftenposten. It said Norwegian’s rapid expansion in terms of fleet, routes and new bases has put staff under massive pressure to perform tasks quickly and train a large number of new employees. The expansion has made upholding regulations and quality a challenge.
The authorities also found a number of pilots with little flying experience had been hired by Norwegian. Cabin crew are being trained in several places outside of Scandinavia without the authority’s approval. The high number of fatigue reports worried the auditors, who said it clearly shows people are working so hard that they’re constantly tired.
Lufttilsynet said it’s very concerned that Norwegian has started activities which aren’t approved by the regulations, and that an earlier breach reported to be fixed by Norwegian hasn’t been resolved. The auditors questioned why fewer incident reports had been lodged despite the company’s continuous expansion.
29,000 customer complaints
The investigation also revealed a tidal wave of customer complaints. Norwegian flew more than 20 million passengers last year, and had received almost 30 thousand complaints by mid-November. About 60 percent were for damages around delays and cancellations, while 4o percent concerned luggage. More than 200 grievances have gone on to the Transport Complaints Board, the biggest load it has ever received over a single case.
Norwegian has 30 days to fix the breaches, and in the worst case could lose its operating license. Flight Operations Manager Tomas Hesthammer told Aftenposten the 21 breaches have already been rectified, and denied pilots are hired with no experience or are constantly tired.
“Of the 250 pilots we employ a year, maybe 20 of them come straight from school,” he explained, saying those pilots go into rigorous training programs before joining experienced captains on selected routes. He also said Norwegian sticks to the rules on working hours. “It is clear that when unforeseen events happen like delays and cancellations, the work day can be long. We’re aware of the risk, and see the number of those reporting that they’re tired has gone down.”
He said he doesn’t fully agree with the authorities’ views, but he respects them: “We always follow the principle that aviation safety always has top priority. It’s important to me that our customers are clear on that.”
Powerful union outraged
Meanwhile in the US, the powerful American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has joined the fight against Norwegian flying into the country, reported newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Norwegian’s use of Thai staff on its long haul Bangkok, Oslo and New York routes has angered the Americans (and unions in Norway), because the staff are paid much lower wages according to Thai award rates.
The Transport Workers Union leader, Ed Wytkind accused Norwegian of manipulating the facts and using scare tactics in its flights application to the US aviation authorities. “We will do everything in our power to stop any attempt, such as Norwegian’s application, designed to exploit workers just to improve the company’s bottom line,” he said.
“Norwegian’s application is contrary to the agreement between the USA and European Union (EU) in a number of areas,” Wytkind argued. “Norwegian’s proposal will weaken standards in the labour markets. But the agreement explicitly says it should not be used to lower the standards in the respective member countries.”
Norwegian’s communications director Anne-Sissel Skånvik rejected the allegations. “We offer employees competitive remuneration and will fly with American personnel on routes to and from the USA,” she said, adding that Norwegian will reserve its right to continue to use Asian personnel on the same routes.
Wytkind warns Norwegian’s success would open the door for companies to hire the cheapest labour in the world, then operate around the globe under whichever flag is most convenient.
Four major US airlines and the Airline Pilots Association have already lobbied the Department of Transport, saying Norwegian has gained an unfair competitive advantage by using a loophole in an EU/US agreement to fly to the US, with an Irish-registered plane, Asian staff, and a Norwegian-owned airline. Norwegian currently flies to the US under a European Economic Area (EEA) license, but has applied for an EU license because its fleet is registered in Ireland. That would give Norwegian more rights than it has under the EEA license.
The issue was debated at the yearly aviation agreement meeting between the US and European countries in Washington DC this week. Norwegian Chief Executive Bjørn Kjos has also held crisis meetings with Boeing while in Washington. The Dreamliner manufacturers acknowledged the planes have been seriously under performing, and the parties are discussing compensation.