Aviation workers picket White House over Norwegian Air

Norwegian Air International, a low-fare airline that recently won its first step toward approval for flights to the U.S., drew protests Thursday from rival workers who contend the bargain jets would skirt labor and safety laws.

Hundreds of aviation workers chanting “Deny NAI” picketed in front of the White House on Thursday.

Unions for pilots, flight attendants and mechanics claim Norwegian Air International, a subsidiary of the low-cost European carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle, located its headquarters in Ireland to dodge tough Norwegian labor laws that prohibit them from hiring contract pilots who may work for lower wages.

The airline denies the charges. The company said it hired 400 U.S. crew members based in New York and Florida over the past two years as its application was under review by the Department of Transportation. The airline has 80 workers based in Dublin and 37 aircraft registered in Ireland.

Norwegian Air Shuttle officials said its low-cost carrier would increase trans-Atlantic competition without sacrificing safety. The airline said it would hire either U.S.-based or European-based crew for all its trans-Atlantic flights.

DOT gave its initial approval to NAI on April 15 after finding no basis to reject the proposal. The department will reach a final decision after it evaluates comments from the public. The public comment period ends May 23. Rival airlines and their unions have fought the Norwegian Air application since 2013.

The House of Representatives has a bill pending that would bar the department from approving NAI. There is no bill proposed in the Senate.

The way Norwegian Air International operates threatens U.S. jobs and “runs contrary to U.S. policy,” Capt. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, a union with 53,000 members, told the crowd in Lafayette Park before marching across the street to picket. “This cannot stand.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said she fears Norwegian would opt for short-term contracts that allow them to dismiss employees for unjustified reasons, such as weight or age.

“This is about human rights, it’s about equal rights, it’s about women’s rights, it’s about labor rights,” Nelson said.

Supporters of Norwegian Air’s bid to operate more flights in the U.S. say the airline will bring more competition to the industry. They accuse critics of simply trying to protect their own bottom line.

“These unions have spent tens of millions of dollars on a political campaign to shut NAI out of the U.S. market, to restrict competition and effectively feather their own cozy nests in the trans-Atlantic market,” said John Byerly, a former State Department official who helped negotiate international airline agreements and is now a consultant for Norwegian Air. “They’ve reacted with a mixture of desperation, frenzy and a bundle of just plain wrong arguments.”

Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Travel Coalition, said U.S. airlines worry that Norwegian Air’s potential success could encourage other low-fare airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet to set up shop in the U.S.

“They want to kill it now before it becomes a strong darling of Wall Street,” Mitchell said.

Phillip Brown, executive director for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said Norwegian Air Shuttle, the parent company of NAI, brought competition, business and convenience to the Orlando area when it began flying direct to Europe.

“We believe they will expand greatly with approval of the pending U.S. Department of Transportation certificate, and we welcome it,” Brown said.

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