The Hill | Passenger group wants Norwegian Air US flight bid approved

A group that advocates for airline passengers in Washington is pushing the Department of Transportation to approve Norwegian Airlines’s bid to gain more access to airports in the U.S. and European Union to increase competition for international flights.

Norwegian Air is attempting to gain access to airports that are covered under the U.S. and European Union’s Open Skies Agreement by establishing a subsidiary company that would be based in Ireland, which is a member of the EU.

The Scandinavian company has said it will be able to offer transatlantic flights for as low as $150 each way if its effort is approved by the Department of Transportation, where it has been pending since last year.

Labor unions that represent various parts of the U.S. airline industry have said the Norwegian airline would only be able to offer the low fares by cutting corners on labor standards, but the chairman of the Arlington, Va.-based Travelers United group said this week that the deal should be approved because airline consolidation has limited competition for passengers on international flights.

“Though airlines and their unions claim that the introduction of NAI into the mix of transatlantic flights would have a devastating effect on US aviation jobs, that is not the case,” Travelers United Chairman Charlie Leocha wrote in a blog post on the passenger group’s website.

“The approval of this application will not only increase aviation jobs in the United States but it will add dramatically to travel and tourism jobs here in the US,” Leocha continued. “It is not the job of Congress to protect a small clique of aviation union jobs and a non-competitive airline industry that has done all it can to mislead and deceive the flying public, but has also begun to treat its customers inhumanly — eliminating leg space, making seats narrower, eliminating service.”

The bid by Norwegian Airlines to gain entry into the U.S. and European Union markets has roiled the aviation industry for months. The airline has argued that critics are unfairly criticizing its business practices because they are trying to protect their current positions in the international flight markets.

Labor groups that represent U.S. airline employees have said Norwegian’s inclusion in the Open Skies Agreement would undermine the entire premise of the pact because it would be difficult for Irish officials to inspect Norwegian Air planes because the company’s new subsidiary would not fly to Ireland.

Travelers United’s Leocha said Norwegian Air was already flying some of its planes to the U.S.

“The current service provided by NAI’s parent company, Norwegian Air Shuttle between Europe and the US, has already meant tens of thousands of new jobs for destinations such as Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, New York City and Los Angeles,” he said.

Norwegian Air currently flies to airports in New York, California and Florida under the banner of its parent company that is known as Norwegian Air Shuttle. However, Kjos said Thursday that the low-cost business model for his company’s new low cost subsidiary, which is known as Norwegian Air International, requires access to more “Open Skies” airports in Europe to provide more route flexibility in its flight network.

The Department of Transportation has to sign of on the request, which has touched off an intense lobbying fight in Washington, because of the U.S.’s inclusion in the Open Skies Agreement.

Norwegian has been trying to get approval from the DOT for a full foreign-carrier permit for its Ireland-based subsidiary, which has riled members of the U.S. aviation because they argue that Irish aviation regulations are more lax than other EU nations.

Critics of Norwegian Air’s bid already won a victory from the Obama administration when the department ruled in September that the company did not qualify for an exemption that allows foreign carriers who are seeking access to U.S. airports under the Open Skies agreement to begin providing flights while their full applications are still being review by federal regulators.

Lawmakers in both parties have also signed on to the union opposition to Norwegian, which the company has labeled as sour grapes from labor groups “that are trying to stop American people from being able to fly on low fares over the Atlantic.”

Leocha said this week that “Congress should remain out of this issue.

“This deals with a treaty that has already been signed and that has been negotiated between the US and many countries,” he wrote. “The approval process is clear and should have been completed months ago, according to the European Union.”

Leocha added that Norwegian Air “will offer much needed competition for the current cabal of three international airline alliances that currently control more than 80 percent of the international market” if its new flights are approved, as well as provide other economic benefits to the U.S.

“Expanding international travel will provide thousands of jobs to airport workers, flight attendants (who will be hired and based here in the US), hotel and restaurant workers, Boeing and many others associated with travel and tourism,” he wrote. “The airline union plea for denial of the NAI application is totally selfish and will only protect the unions’ interest and those of airlines who want to stifle competition.”

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