WASHINGTON – The Transportation Department gave tentative approval Friday for Norwegian Air International to fly to the United States, which has been fiercely opposed by airlines and their unions for years.
Norwegian’s parent company began as a discount carrier in Europe that expanded in recent years to the U.S. But the subsidiary’s organization as an Irish carrier hiring Asian pilots raised safety and labor concerns among U.S. rivals, who formally asked the department to reject the airline in December 2013.
The department proceeded “with caution and careful consideration” because of novel and complex facets of the case. But after consulting with the Justice and State departments, transportation officials found no basis to reject Norwegian.
The department asked for additional comment on its tentative decision through May 13, before it finalizes its approval.
Norwegian officials welcomed the decision and said the airline would continue hiring hundreds of American-based crew members and buying 149 Boeing 787 and 737 aircraft worth a combined $18.5 billion.
“A final approval, based on the Open Skies Agreement between the U.S. and (European Union) will be win-win for consumers and the economy on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Bjorn Kjos, CEO of Norwegian Group.
As part of its tentative approval, the department ruled that Norwegian it is financially and operationally fit to fly, and that Irish safety oversight satisfies the requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration.
But U.S. unions and lawmakers remained strongly opposed. The House voted in June 2014 to block Norwegian flights.
“This airline is ‘Norwegian’ in name only because it uses a flag of convenience to base crews where labor laws are weak,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, who called himself “extremely disappointed” with the tentative decision. “Its global outsourcing business model exploits terrible labor, tax and regulatory laws in other countries so it can save a few bucks and undercut competition in the aviation marketplace.”
The big three U.S. airlines – American, Delta and United – had argued that the proposal aims to evade labor protections to get a competitive advantage that isn't in the public interest.
The Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing 52,000 pilots, said the decision represents serious flaws in aviation policy.
“We are extremely disappointed by the DOT’s intention to permit Norwegian Air International to fly to and from the United States because it is an affront to fair competition,” said Capt. Tim Canoll, the union president.
Unions warned that the decision sets a precedent for airlines to base their operations where laws are weakest under a model called a “flag of convenience,” which cruise lines use to stricter maritime laws.
“The Obama administration is on the brink of awarding a ‘flag of convenience’ in aviation, designed specifically to avoid labor laws,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “With this decision, the administration has chosen foreign corporations over workers’ rights and good American jobs.”
But U.S. airports that stand to gain flights support Norwegian. Groups supporting airports in Oakland, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Washington, D.C., each urged approval of the proposal.
The airline said complaints against it were "fatally flawed" and that labor rules and training will be governed by Ireland.
"Norwegian International is offering competitive wages and working conditions to all of its employees," the airline said in filings to the department. "At the same time, Norwegian International is bewildered at the Chicken Little 'sky is falling' hysteria propagated by some of the objecting parties."