Norwegian Air Shuttle has a new defense against critics such as the Air Line Pilots Association, which criticize it for flouting U.S. and European labor practices. The carrier said Monday it soon will hire U.S. pilots, basing them in Fort Lauderdale.
Plans call for the airline to start small, first hiring enough pilots to staff one Boeing 787. Norwegian said it seeks to hire nine captains, five relief captains and nine first officers, plus one pilot to handle administrative duties. Norwegian said it will pay to help pilots meet European standards, and suggested it plans to hire many more American pilots eventually. Norwegian already hires Americans as flight attendants, and they are based in Fort Lauderdale and New York.
Norwegian claims it will be the first European airline to hire U.S.-based pilots. Elsewhere, some airlines take this approach, with Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific basing some pilots in U.S. cities. What is more common, though, is for international airlines to hire Americans and then ask them to relocate to China and the Middle East, two regions that tend to favor hiring U.S.-trained pilots.
It is not clear how intriguing this offer will be for U.S. pilots. As recently as five years ago, many pilots were out of work, furloughed by major carriers, as airlines were shrinking in an effort to improve their finances. But today, pilots have leverage, and many are receiving big raises, from both major airlines and regional carriers. Larger airlines are also hiring, and captains flying regional jets may be less enticed by an offer from Norwegian if they think they can earn a job at United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, or American Airlines.
Norwegian’s decision, which an airline spokesman said had long been planned, comes as U.S. pilot unions continue to criticize the carrier for its business model. Other stakeholders, including American, United and Delta, as well as flight attendant unions, have also at times been critical of the company.
Few groups have been as vocal as the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, which represents pilots and Delta and United.
ALPA has two main complaints about Norwegian. The first involves how the company is set up. The airline passengers call Norwegian is actually four different carriers — two based in Norway, one in the United Kingdom, and one in Ireland. For now, U.S. regulators only permit the Norway-based long-haul airline to fly to the United States.
Most global airlines have one operating certificate from one country, not four. ALPA is asking U.S. regulators to block Norwegian’s UK and Irish subsidiaries from flying to the United States, accusing the company of creating “subsidiaries based outside of [its] home country in an attempt to increase [its] ‘bottom line’ financial results.” Norwegian has countered that it created the UK and Ireland-registered airlines not to flout labor or tax laws, but because Norway — not an EU member — has negotiated limited air service rights with other countries. The UK and Irish subsidiaries have access to far more destinations than the airlines based in Norway.
ALPA has also been critical of the complicated process Norwegian uses to employ some of its pilots. Bloomberg reported last year that Norwegian Air International uses an employment agency in Singapore to hire some flight crews, and then bases some pilots in Bangkok. However, Norwegian spokesman Anders Lindström said “most” of the airlines pilots work on European contracts.
In a statement, ALPA suggested Norwegian should only hire pilot on contracts tied to four countries — the UK, Ireland, Norway and the United States.
“The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l believes that Norwegian should commit to the U.S. Department of Transportation that it will put all of its pilots on contracts in the country where the airline holds its operating certificates or the United States,” ALPA said in statement.
In response, Norwegian spokesman Anders Lindström defended the practice of hiring and basing crews throughout the world.
“The European aviation market is vastly different to the U.S. aviation market, and it is common practice to hire pilots, and cabin crew, on local contracts where they are based,” he said. “This is the case for Norwegian, just as it is for all our competitors, including Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air, as well as for Asian low-cost airlines.”