Congress Wants to Keep Norwegian Airlines’ Cheap Flights Out of America

An amendment was introduced to block low-cost Norwegian Airlines from flying to the U.S. Is this about safety or competition?

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg, via Getty

As if they weren’t unpopular enough, lawmakers in Congress could make your next overseas jaunt more expensive—and they’re going to dramatic ends to defend their move.

Norwegian Airlines, Europe’s third-largest low-cost carrier, is hoping to expand the number of trans-Atlantic flights between the European Union and the United States. They claim they’ll bring cheaper flights to American consumers, and their introductory fares from New York to London for $225 one way have already garnered attention.

But the House approved a measure last month to stifle that proposed expansion. An amendment in the spending bill for the Department of Transportation essentially called for the agency to deny a Norwegian Airlines subsidiary from operating in the U.S.

Norwegian Airlines set up an Irish subsidiary, arguing that the greater global traffic rights afforded to airlines based in Ireland would allow them to cut costs through more streamlined flight schedules. The airline will also be flying the new Boeing 787 aircraft, which burns less fuel than its counterparts, to offer lower long-haul fares.

“It would be an affront to over 300 million American consumers, the U.S. tourism industry, and Boeing and other U.S. aerospace manufacturers to deny the application of Norwegian Air International to satisfy the demands of special interest groups at U.S. airlines and their unions,” said John Byerly, a former State Department official who now works as a consultant for Norwegian Airlines.

One lawmaker behind the bill acknowledged that airline fares could be lower through Norwegian Air—but warned that consumers might not like what they get.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, championed the House measure along with GOP Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, and was provocative in his defense of it. The lawmaker accused Norwegian Airlines of trying to “drive this industry to the lowest common denominator,” even suggesting that approval of their application could lead to deaths.

“I have yet to sit next to a person who wants to pay a lower fare with the prospect of having an incompetent pilot who’s going to kill them,” DeFazio told The Daily Beast.

Norwegian Airlines hires pilots with EU licenses and has previously said that questioning their airline’s safety record was “slanderous.” Opponents of their expansion, Norwegian Airline argues, are simply against new competition.

“Such false and irresponsible attacks on Norwegian’s highly experienced pilots are a sad commentary on the blatant politicization of this regulatory proceeding by the opponents of competition,” Byerly said.

The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest airline pilot union in the world, has launched a campaign to block Norwegian Airlines’ Irish subsidiary, and was more measured in its criticism than DeFazio.

It doesn’t object to existing Norwegian Airlines flights, ALPA official Michael Robbins said, but it does reject Norwegian’s move to set up shop in Ireland. ALPA claims the Irish subsidiary has been set up to take advantage of the country’s more favorable labor, tax and regulatory laws.

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ALPA said that if Norwegian Airlines were to be allowed to set up in Ireland, it could upend the entire aviation industry’s status quo, threatening the jobs of American pilots and the safety of passengers. If other airlines followed Norwegian Air’s footsteps and began basing themselves in Ireland, American pilots without European licenses could become less valuable in the job market.

Approving the Irish subsidiary’s operation in the U.S., Robbins said, would be “setting a precedent that would force other carriers to look at doing the same thing, which could lead to a loss of flying opportunity [for] American pilots.”

Norwegian’s Irish subsidiary has no plans to fly in and out of Ireland—the subsidiary is just taking advantage of the country’s laws to operate its business.

“How comfortable are you flying with an airline that doesn’t fly into or out of the country that’s supposed to be providing oversight of it?” Robbins asked.