Affordable. Comfortable. On time.
Those are just some of the words Norwegian Air passengers are using to describe the discount airline, which is patiently waiting for a foreign air carrier permit from the U.S. government for its Irish subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI). Many customers rave about its low fares, new planes and friendly service.
But that’s not how some U.S. airlines describe Norwegian Air. Critics, including labor unions and competitors, say the airline flouts labor laws, threatens American jobs and should be banned from flying in the United States.
Now, after two years in a holding pattern and extensive vetting by regulators, the Department of Transportation is on the verge of granting Norwegian Air the permission it requested. Last month, the DOT issued a “show cause” order for its Irish subsidiary, soliciting public comments. Observers believe the airline is about to get the all-clear from authorities, which will allow Norwegian Air to expand worldwide.
How will that affect you? It depends on who you are. Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of 32 member unions representing transportation workers, predicts that NAI’s approval “will destroy fair competition and extinguish middle-class airline jobs here and in Europe.” In other words, if you or a loved one works in the transportation business, you might feel this a little.
Some members of Congress agree. Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) and Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.) quickly introduced a bill that they say would prevent the DOT from permitting a foreign air carrier to operate between European countries and the United States unless the carrier complies with basic, fair U.S. or European Union labor standards — a law that would effectively throttle Norwegian Air’s expansion.
The bill is unlikely to pass.
“Our opponents have created a wildly inaccurate fear-mongering situation,” says Réal Hamilton-Romeo, a Norwegian Air spokeswoman. Green-lighting Norwegian Air, she says, would help create more American cabin-crew jobs working for Norwegian Air; help sustain and support more than 90,000 American jobs through an $18.5 billion order with Boeing; bring more tourists to the United States; and add direct air service to Europe for American air travelers.
“Protests against Norwegian Air are nothing but special interests in the U.S. airline industry worried about international competition,” agrees Jonathan Galaviz, an airline analyst with Global Market Advisors, a travel industry consulting firm. What’s more, he notes, denying Norwegian Air’s request would affect the U.S. tourism industry in other ways, hurting “thousands of American hotel workers and taxi drivers that rely on new inbound airline traffic from abroad.”
Northeastern University economist Harlan Platt says the debate reminds him of taxis fighting the inevitable spread of Uber. But the new, better way of running an airline — Norwegian Air is finding ways to reduce costs by breaking the old model of basing an airline in one country, employing people there and hiring its crew there — will ultimately win, to the benefit of passengers.
“Denying Norwegian Air’s application is tantamount to saying that American consumers should subsidize United Airlines and its unions,” he says. “While it is true that many of these airlines went through bankruptcy a decade ago, since then, they have consolidated the industry and destroyed competition. They are now all highly profitable and greedier than Midas.”
Maybe the real question is: What do you give up when you fly on Norwegian Air? Not much, passengers say.
Norwegian Air follows the “a la carte” pricing model popularized by the airline industry about a decade ago, selling you a seat but asking you to pay for anything extra. That includes imposing fees for checked luggage, drinks, in-flight meals, phone reservations, seat assignments, snacks and ticket changes.
Even so, Annalisa Fernandez, an author based in Riverside, Conn., says Norwegian Air is surprisingly affordable. “We flew Norwegian Air to Spain last summer to take the kids to summer camp and plan to do it again this year,” she says. Airfare for a family of five set the family back $4,000, $2,000 less than she would have paid on a conventional airline. Fernandez did her research before choosing the flight. “I trust the Norwegians to not cut corners on safety,” she adds.
Transatlantic airfares rise significantly during the summer, a time of peak demand. With only a handful of airlines competing on many popular routes, thanks to government-approved airline alliances that are granted antitrust immunity, you don’t often hear passengers talking about affordable tickets.
Here’s another word you rarely hear used to describe a flight: comfortable.
Lloyd Wheeler, who runs a production company in Tallahassee, flew from Orlando to Copenhagen last month on Norwegian Air and described it as a “decent” experience. “Norwegian’s layout in economy is more comfortable than I have experienced in many other airlines,” he says. That’s a sharp contrast to the U.S.-based carriers, who offer humane legroom and space only to their elites, to those willing to pay sky-high fares to sit in business class or to those who slavishly collect frequent-flier miles. Adds Wheeler, “We look forward to flying on Norwegian Air again and hope to use their service in other markets.”
Jonathan Weber, who owns a Web design firm in Stroudsburg, Pa., paid $256 to fly on Norwegian Air from New York to Oslo. He was impressed by the new aircraft and positive work ethic.
“They depart and arrive on time, and they have a professional and courteous crew,” he says, adding: “I’d fly them for a domestic route over the normal American alternatives any day.”
Actually, Norwegian Air isn’t applying to fly domestic routes — under an antiquated U.S. law, foreign carriers are not allowed to do that — but Weber’s comments underscore the level of unhappiness American air travelers feel with their own carriers. There’s a strong sense among passengers that the government shouldn’t prop up a system that doesn’t serve them well.
Time and again, the experts and air travelers I spoke with for this article mentioned the broken system: Airlines no longer compete, their fares are too high and their service levels are too low. And time and again, they expressed the hope that an airline like Norwegian Air can change the system by offering a better way to fly and disrupting an inefficient model.
Then again, what if the critics are right? What if Norwegian Air’s promises to offer low fares, better service and create American jobs turn out to be empty? What if Norwegian Air’s expansion decimates a vital American industry, taking with it the livelihood of thousands of taxpayers?
We’re about to find out.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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