We must protect open and fair aviation competition
The planes are painted in the national colors of Norway, their tails decorated with pictures of famous Norwegians. Emblazoned on the fuselage in bold print is the airline’s name, Norwegian Air. You buy your tickets at Norwegian Air International’s website to fly on the airline from New York or Los Angeles to Oslo.
But that’s where the “Norwegian” part of this airline’s business model ends. Norwegian Air International (NAI) is headquartered in Ireland, employs crews under short-term contracts governed by Singapore law, and bases many crewmembers in Bangkok to avoid Norway’s fair and strong labor standards. It is “Norwegian” in name only. The airline is set up to operate services under our expansive air transport agreement with Norway and the European Union on anti-labor terms that put American jobs at risk.
Despite NAI’s overt use of a flag of convenience, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave this arrangement a stamp of approval on April 15, tentatively deciding to issue NAI a foreign air carrier permit for permanent service to the United States. Not only is the Department’s decision shortsighted, it ignores the clear language of our air transport agreement stating that U.S.-Europe air services “are not intended to undermine labour standards or the labour-related rights and principles contained in the Parties’ respective laws.” In signing this agreement, the United States agreed not to be complicit in any attempt by a European airline to circumvent its home country’s labor laws by hiring crews under cheaper, foreign contracts. But in allowing NAI to serve the United States using this business model, that is exactly what the Department of Transportation has done.
The NAI business model creates a race to the bottom among global carriers when it comes to fair and sustainable labor practices. As a result, hundreds of thousands of hardworking airline employees in the United States who are protected by the strong labor rules that govern U.S. air carriers will lose. And ultimately so will American travelers, who may one day find themselves with fewer options for travel to Europe and beyond once Norwegian and carriers like it have exploited cheap labor to drive U.S. carriers out of the market.
The Obama Administration must enforce labor standards in trade deals. If this administration chooses not to enforce its own commitment in the U.S.-EU-Norway-Iceland Air Transport Agreement that air services will not “undermine labor standards or the labor-related rights and principles” of U.S. or Norwegian law, the future of U.S. competitiveness looks very bleak indeed.
To protect the sanctity of labor rights in international civil aviation, Congress must step in and require the Department to honor its commitments. Last week, we introduced a bipartisan bill that will prohibit the Secretary of Transportation from allowing an airline to fly between the United States and Europe unless the Secretary specifically finds that the airline’s business practices are consistent with the air transport agreement’s labor protections.
The administration can still change course and correct its flawed tentative decision. Doing so will demonstrate a willingness to enforce reasonable, universal labor standards and maintain a sustainable global aviation system that’s here for the long haul.