In December, after three years of review, the DOT gave the OK for Norwegian Air Group to fly its low-cost transatlantic flights through an Ireland-based subsidiary, Norwegian Air International.
While Norwegian said it wants to use the Irish entity instead of its original, Norway-based company in order to ease network planning, major U.S. airlines and airline unions said the carrier simply wants to take advantage of Ireland's relatively loose labor laws.
Senior editor Robert Silk spoke with Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, about his concerns regarding Norwegian and his frustration with travel industry advocates who have supported the carrier.
Q: In late December, more than 100 members of Congress signed off on a letter asking president-elect Donald Trump to reverse the Obama administration's approval of Norwegian Air International (NAI). Do you believe that will happen?
A: We're focused right now first on making a pretty robust appeal to President Obama to intervene and suspend or reverse the decision made by his DOT. After that, of course, we are going to be appealing very aggressively to President Trump and his secretary of transportation.
Q: NAI opponents said that Norwegian plans to hire low-paid cabin crew under Asian labor laws. But Norwegian has stated repeatedly that it has no Asia-based pilots or flight attendants, nor does it intend to hire any. It has also announced plans to open its second and third pilot and flight-attendant training bases in the U.S. next year. Why shouldn't people believe that?
A: Their claims are not true. Whether or not they plan to employ U.S.- and European-based flight attendants and pilots is not the point. The issue is that we know right now that operational Norwegian Air has pilots in its employment who are based in a variety of places, including Europe, but their contracts are being procured through a Singapore-based hiring agency. And the actual employment contract dictates that their employees are based in Bangkok.
Q: Do you expect Norwegian to hire U.S.-based crews through Singapore employment agencies?
A: I'm not going to speak to their future operations. What I can tell you is that many of the pilots they are hiring in Europe are based on this Asian business model. They've refused to say that all the employees at Norwegian Air International are going to be covered by contracts in the country in which they are employed. They may be Europeans, but some of them are going to be hired under Asian contracts.
Q: You're highly critical of the organized travel lobby for vocally backing the NAI application. Why?
A: We just think they are very near-sighted, and all they are doing is chasing fees. But they should care about the very industry that they are earning their livelihood in. They put on a good face about caring about good jobs in the U.S. travel industry, but by supporting rogue airline operations they are threatening really good jobs in the U.S. air-transportation industry, and we don't think that is in their long-term interest. We see no reason to believe that the U.S. travel industry shouldn't want full compliance with U.S. trade rules and laws.
Q: I'm not sure travel industry advocates would agree with your portrayal of NAI. After all, the DOT approved the application after an exceedingly long review, during which it even took the unprecedented step of seeking advice from the Justice Department and the State Department.
A: I defy anyone to show us where our government said our arguments and concerns were not valid or worthy of consideration. They simply said that even if they are as valid as we say they are, they aren't reason to deny the application, which we think sends a really chilling message.
Correction: Ed Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO,not executive director as a previous version of this article state.