Jan. 20--Norwegian Air Chief Executive Bjorn Kjos aims to do for international flying what Southwest Airlines did for domestic flying.
His upstart European airline is trying to pioneer a new low-cost carrier model that Kjos says could ultimately double passenger traffic across the Atlantic.
"Look what Southwest and JetBlue did in America. It should be very cheap to fly. It will be cheap to fly long haul," Kjos said in an interview. "If you manage to fly for low prices, you will bring millions of jobs because of all the tourists who will fly into the U.S."
Boeing has a lot riding on Norwegian's success. Just as Southwest leveraged the 737 to start the low-cost carrier business in the U.S., Norwegian has ordered 10 new 787 Dreamliners to get its low-cost, long-haul business started.
Naturally, the established U.S. trans-Atlantic carriers -- American Airlines, Delta and United -- have ganged up to stop Norwegian.
They and the U.S. airline-pilots union accuse Norwegian of seeking to set up a low-wage operation with foreign crews that will create unfair competition.
Kjos was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to seek regulatory approval from the Department of Transportation.
He needs that because this Norwegian airline won't be based in Norway.
There is a so-called Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and the European Union -- one that was extended to include Norway (not an EU country) -- that already allows Norwegian to fly from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in the U.S.
But equivalent agreements between the EU and Asian countries don't include Norway.
So Kjos has set up Norwegian's long-haul subsidiary in Ireland, an EU member country with no restrictions on flights to Asia. Kjos needs the U.S. government to grant him a foreign air-carrier permit as an Irish airline.
Only then can he fulfill his plan to shuttle his Dreamliners from all over Europe to leisure destinations both in the U.S. and Asia.
With that Irish airline certificate, it can fly from Bangkok, Thailand, to London, then on to New York, without ever touching down in Oslo.
U.S. airlines cry foul
The airline has just set up its first foreign crew base in Bangkok. It will soon open one in New York, and by the end of March another in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
By the end of the year, the airline plans to hire some 300 American crew members.
This summer, it hopes to operate out of Gatwick airport in London and to offer low-cost flights from London and other European destinations to New York, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Oakland and Los Angeles, as well as to Bangkok.
In filings to the Department of Transportation, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and the big American carriers that operate trans-Atlantic flights are crying foul.
ALPA contends Norwegian has set up in Ireland "expressly to evade the social laws of Norway in order to lower wages and working conditions of its aircrew."
The salaries and benefits of pilots in the Irish long-haul subsidiary are "substantially inferior" to those of its Norwegian-based pilots, ALPA claimed.
A joint filing from American, Delta and United likewise argues Norwegian's application to operate as an Irish carrier is merely "a flag of convenience. to avoid Norway's labor laws and lower labor costs ... thus giving (Norwegian) a competitive advantage on transatlantic routes in direct competition with U.S. carriers."
Kjos, a down-to-earth, open chief executive who also writes spy thrillers and is a former U.S.-trained Norwegian fighter pilot, dismisses this critique as a self-interested smoke screen from competitors trying to protect their most lucrative international routes.
"The only thing they are trying to do is to stop the low-cost era from happening on the Atlantic," he said. "They are afraid prices will drop."
Norwegian must pay its cabin crews the going rate where they live, whether in New York, Florida or Thailand, Kjos said. It makes sense to set up bases at these big leisure destinations, rather than in Oslo, to streamline the operation, he said.
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