by Ed Forry,
May 31, 2016- Bostonians looking for a new way to fly from Logan to Ireland might soon be able to book a non-stop flight to County Cork on a low-cost economy airline operated by an Ireland-based subsidiary of a Norwegian air carrier.
Or maybe not.
There was excited reaction on April 15 when the US Transportation Dept. approved a permit to Norwegian Air International (NAI) for a Cork-Boston flight. DOT’s "show cause order" included a 21-day comment period, and the final decision was expected by late May or early this month.
Cork leaders were delighted that their city would soon be hub for regular transatlantic flights to the US, with Cork Airport head Niall McCarthy telling the Irish Times, “We have been working hugely behind the scenes. I’ve been over to Washington several times and we have got great support from local representatives and from the Chamber particularly, from the councils and from the Irish government.”
The Times noted that McCarthy had told Cork's local FM radio station that “there was huge opposition within the US, particularly from trade unions to the granting of this permit and it does show the Irish lobby is still a powerful lobby in the States and we have been successful in bringing it to where it is at, but we have put huge work in.”
In mid-April, the Cork/Boston route was all but certain, but on April 28, four members of Congress introduced what they termed a "bipartisan bill to stop a short-sighted DOT decision.” Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Rick Larsen (D-WA), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) filed H.R 5090, which they said seeks to "prevent the US Department of Transportation (DOT) from permitting a foreign air carrier to operate between European countries and the United States unless the carrier complies with basic, fair US or European Union labor standards. ... NAI established itself in Ireland, where labor laws permit the airline to hire its pilots and flight attendants on individual employment contracts under non-European law in order to cut costs. NAI’s overt practice of labor forum-shopping violates our Open Skies agreement with Norway and the European Union and gives it an unfair competitive advantage in the transatlantic market."
“Consumers may purchase tickets on Norwegian.com and they may board planes marked Norwegian in big bold letters, but this airline is ‘Norwegian’ in name only," DeFazio said. "The DOT record shows that Norwegian Air International is headquartered in Ireland and employs contract crews based in Thailand to circumvent Norway’s fair and strong labor standards. It’s a virtual airline set up to undercut competition by exploiting cheap labor. Our bipartisan legislation sends a strong message to DOT—we must stop this race to the bottom, and protect the open and fair transatlantic aviation market.”
Added LoBiondo: “Norwegian Airlines has sidestepped the bedrock labor agreements that are the foundation of the US-EU Air Transport Agreement. In so doing, they have compromised the competitiveness of American air carriers. There has been long-standing opposition in Congress to permitting this to go forward. The US Department of Transportation must reconsider its position.”
Said Larsen: “My colleagues and I have been clear with DOT that strong labor standards must factor into NAI’s air carrier permit decision. Today we are introducing legislation that would prohibit DOT from issuing a permit to NAI if doing so would undermine labor standards.
“Granting an air carrier permit to NAI would say to the world that the US rewards other countries that break their commitments to protecting workers. Our agreements with other countries are only as strong as our ability and willingness to enforce them, which is why I am pushing hard for the US to hold other countries accountable for their end of the deal,” he added.
The issue has become a political hot potato. Cork's Mayor Chris O'Leary challenged Ireland Taoiseach Enda Kenny to "play hardball" in getting the deal done, and the issue has found its way into presidential politics, with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders saying they oppose the decision.
In late May, O'Leary told Cork's Evening Echo, "We’ve been pussyfooting around; it’s now time to play hardball. We’re hearing a lot of hardball from the US — just because it is election time there doesn’t mean we can become a ping pong. We have applied for the route and the license correctly, and we have complied with every piece of paper and legislation that they have sought. There is no reason we shouldn’t get this license.”