[As published by Adam Snider and Kevin Robillard in Politico Pro]
U.S. airlines and their unions scored a victory Tuesday when the Department of Transportation rejected a procedural application for Norwegian Air International to operate in the United States.
But the fight’s far from over.
DOT rejected NAI’s request to fly into and out of the United States on a temporary basis, but officials are still considering whether to give the airline a full operating permit, so the lobbying battle won’t let up.
“The department continues to review the extensive record and deliberate on the application for longer-term operating authority,” DOT said in a statement confirming that it denied the application.
Several aviation insiders with knowledge of the situation have said that DOT won’t rule on Norwegian’s desired foreign air carrier permit until after the elections.
The effort to enter the U.S. market by NAI — which is certified in Ireland and hires its pilots from Singapore — drew outrage from domestic airline unions and a broad coalition of lawmakers in both parties.
More than 40 senators and 100 House members signed letters expressing worries about the deal, and the House passed an amendment to the THUD appropriations bill aiming to block the airline.
Norwegian has argued that opposition to its application is mere protectionism, driven by the major airlines who control more than three-quarters of the highly profitable transatlantic market. On the company’s existing U.S. routes operated under a separate company called Norwegian Long Haul, tickets are often more than $100 cheaper than the closest competitors’.
NAI said in a statement it still expected to win final approval from DOT, but it was disappointed with Tuesday’s ruling.
“While we think it is unfortunate that DOT feels the need to further delay issuance of our permit, which has been pending now for over six months, Norwegian Air International stands behind its business — from its pilots and cabin crew to its affordable fare model to its desire to bring competition to the transatlantic market — and looks forward to receiving approval to operate without further delay,” NAI CEO Asgeir Nyseth said.
The Air Line Pilots Association, which once called the NAI “the wolf at the door” in a video, hailed DOT’s decision.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation took an important stand for fair competition today by denying Norwegian Air International’s request for temporary authorization to fly to and from the United States,” ALPA President Lee Moak said.
The head of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO slammed Norwegian for trying to game the regulatory system and urged DOT to reject the full application.
“NAI is effectively demanding one set of rules for its airline and a different set of rules for all other airlines in the U.S. and Europe,” TTD President Edward Wytkind said in a statement. “This scheme should not fly. Today’s denial by our government of NAI’s exemption should lead to a rejection of the airline’s pending application for a foreign air carrier permit.”
ALPA and other unions have warned NAI risked bringing the same “flag of convenience” model that has destroyed the American shipping fleet to the airline industry. NAI, with a Norwegian parent company, was planning on officially basing itself in Ireland — even though it has no plans to fly to the country.
“We simply cannot support foreign carriers who dodge laws and regulations and create a global race to the bottom,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson said in a statement.
Several major European unions joined their American counterparts in opposing the deal.
“In our global aviation environment, it is imperative that we all work together to ensure that workers are treated fairly and are recognized for our role in their airline’s success,” Nelson said. “For several months, we have joined our sisters and brothers and stood united against NAI’s scheme to severely undercut our airlines and threaten our profession. Together we pushed back against this attempt and we now redouble our efforts to protect good jobs.”