The planned December launch of Norse Atlantic Airways as a potential Norwegian Air successor has raised concern from the most powerful labor unions in the U.S. airline industry.
But while the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) used tough language in a statement about Norse Atlantic on Tuesday, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) president Sara Nelson said Monday that her initial discussions with Norse Atlantic majority owner Bjorn Tore Larsen have been encouraging.
Norse Atlantic formed in March, announcing its intent to fly Boeing 787 Dreamliners between European destinations such as London, Paris and Oslo and U.S. destinations such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami. The new airline hopes to follow in the footsteps of discount carrier Norwegian, which formally abandoned U.S. flying in January after pausing transatlantic service early in the Covid-19 pandemic.
Larsen is the co-founder of OSM Aviation, which used to provide flight crews for Norwegian. Bjorn Kjos, a Norwegian Air co-founder and its former CEO, is also a shareholder, though he holds only approximately 2% of the company, Larsen said.
Larsen said Norse Atlantic has "zero ties to Norwegian Air."
Nevertheless, the nascent Norway-based carrier has raised hackles at U.S. airline unions, which between early 2014 and late 2016 joined American, Delta and United in a protracted fight against Norwegian Air Group's application to operate flights to the U.S. through an Ireland-based entity called Norwegian Air International (NAI). NAI eventually was awarded a foreign air carrier permit by the Transportation Department in December 2016.
Norwegian, by then, was already operating U.S. flights under the permit that had been granted to its Norway-based subsidiary, Norwegian Air Shuttle. Unions accused the company of deploying the Ireland-based subsidiary in order to take advantage of labor laws that are weaker than those of Norway. The lax Irish regulations, they said, enabled Norwegian to use a Singapore-based agency to hire employees on short-term, low-wage contracts.
Larsen appears eager to avoid such a fight with Norse Atlantic. Executives from the carrier are scheduled to meet with AFA leadership at the end of this month. And in a statement released by the AFA Monday, Larsen was quoted as saying that Norse Atlantic will approach labor relations differently than Norwegian.
"A low-cost operation doesn't mean workers shouldn't have good jobs at the company," he said. "We will directly employ the staff of Norse and respect the rights of our employees to collectively bargain. Norse respects AFA as an outspoken advocate for the flight attendants' rights. It's important for Norse to demonstrate we mean what we say about honoring worker rights and job security for our staff."
For now, the AFA appears heartened by Larsen's approach.
"We believe Norse can provide good flight attendants jobs that respect labor rights in the U.S. and Europe as intended by the E.U.U.S. Open Skies Agreement," Nelson said. "We look forward to meeting later this month to attempt to codify these discussions with a legally binding contract."
But ALPA president Joe DePete is still far from convinced. In a statement issued Tuesday, DePete said that he is "highly skeptical" of the intentions of Norse Atlantic's Norwegian-connected leaders.
"We will vigorously oppose Norse's attempt to obtain Department of Transportation approval to operate into the United States if its 'brand new' airline is just another bait-and-switch flag-of-convenience scheme, and we are confident that this administration will vigorously enforce our trade agreements, defend collective bargaining rights, and protect American jobs," DePete said.
CORRECTED: This report was updated on May 10 to clarify an earlier version, which, citing a March 15 Norse Atlantic press release, said Norwegian founder Kjos owned 15% of the new carrier. The release was erroneous, Larsen said. It was removed from the Norse Atlantic website on May 10.