“Dangerous” – that is how the US Air Line Pilots’ Association describes a European airline’s plans for new low-cost flights this summer from Britain to New York, Florida and California.
The airline, Norwegian, plans to start flying to the US from Gatwick, where the pioneering Laker Airways was based. Flights are due to start in July to New York JFK, Fort Lauderdale in Florida and Los Angeles.
Norwegian says it aims “to bring innovative service, competitive fares and an industry-leading product to the US market”. London-New York tickets in August are available for under £500 return, about 20 per cent less than the American Airlines fare on the same dates.
US pilots are asking Washington to block the proposed flights, describing the airline as a “sketchy foreign competitor”. The transatlantic flights will be operated by a subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI). ALPA has launched an online petition that demands: “Tell the Obama administration to defend US airlines and airline jobs by denying NAI’s dangerous application to fly into the United States.”
ALPA’s argument is centred on the unusual operational structure that Norwegian plans for the flights, which some aviation figures have likened to a maritime “flag of convenience”.
Norwegian is based in Oslo, but the transatlantic offshoot, NAI, was registered last April in Dublin. While the airline’s Boeing 787 jets will fly over Ireland, there are no plans actually to land there. Flight crew for the UK-US operation are hired under Singaporean employment law and officially based in Bangkok.
ALPA’s president, Captain Lee Moak, said: “Norwegian Air International was clearly designed to attempt to dodge laws and regulations, starting a race to the bottom.” But the union’s attitude has led to accusations of protectionism.
Douglas McNeill, investment director for Charles Stanley Securities, said: “Safety is a red herring here. Norwegian has an excellent safety record and no commercial incentive at all to take any risks with it. ALPA’s real beef is a possible weakening of its ability to influence pilot pay rates.”
UK pilots have adopted a more measured approach than their American counterparts. Richard Toomer of the British Airline Pilots’ Association said: “We’re pleased to see another airline coming to the UK’s shores employing more pilots and providing new routes and options for passengers. But the exotic model they have adopted for the employment of their pilots does raise a lot of questions.”
The airline rejected the criticism, with a statement that read: “Norwegian offers competitive wages and conditions in all markets we operate. It’s incorrect and misleading to state that the location of our bases is based on the ability to offer low wages and poor social conditions.
“Safety is has always been, is, and will always be our main priority.”