Fianna Fáil city councillor, Tom O’Driscoll, said with just months to go before the proposed May launch of Norwegian Airline’s Cork to Boston service, he has concerns that the US Department of Transportation (DoT) still has not made a decision on its foreign carrier licence application, two years after it was submitted.
He called for a high-level diplomatic intervention, led by Transport Minister Paschal Donohue, to ensure the transatlantic service — a long-term strategic goal of Cork Airport and which has been described as a game-changer for the airport and the wider region — is secured.
“Time is running out and concerns are mounting. I think it’s time now for the transport minister to intervene at the highest level to ensure this service gets off the ground,” he said.
Last September, Norwegian, Europe’s third largest low-cost airline, announced plans to launch a new direct low-cost transatlantic service five times a week from Cork to Boston in May, using its Irish-registered subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI).
The announcement was hailed across the region.
Norway is not a member of the European Union — one of the reasons Norwegian has established the NAI subsidiary to avail of the Open Skies Agreement between the US and the EU.
The airline said the proposed service would be the first phase of a planned major expansion of its services out of Ireland and the UK.
The expansion also includes a proposed Cork to Barcelona service from May, operating up to five flights a week, and a Cork to New York service in 2017.
But the airline stressed at the time that the transatlantic flights were dependent on the US DoT approving NAI’s application for a foreign carrier permit.
The airline lodged its application two years ago and is still awaiting a decision. It said it is the longest pending application of its kind.
A spokesman for the airline said they are still committed to launching the Cork to US services pending a decision on the licence, but he declined to be drawn on whether the licensing delays could delay the launch of the service.
“It is clear that there is huge support for these new routes from the Irish authorities, the airport, and the wider public,” he said.
“We urge the DoT to finally give their approval which will unlock the door for these new routes, bringing greater competition, more choice and better fares for passengers on both sides of the atlantic.”
Mr Donohoe said he discussed the matter with the EU Transport Commissioner in December and is optimistic that the European Commission will take the appropriate steps under the Open Skies agreement to help resolve the dispute.
Aviation sources say the airline’s application to US authorities for a foreign carrier permit is in full accordance with the Open Skies — a position backed by the commission which was a partner to the deal.
The 2007 agreement provides that any airline registered and approved by an EU member state may be granted traffic rights to fly from anywhere in the EU to anywhere in the US.
But Norwegian’s spokesman said their Irish subsidiary can’t release tickets for sale, details on fare costs or scheduling information on the proposed Cork-Boston service until the permit is sanctioned.
What is stalling Cork’s first US flights?
Low-cost airline Norwegian, wants to operate US transatlantic flights from Cork Airport using its Irish-registered Dublin-based subsidiary Norwegian Air International (NAI).
However, the service can’t start until the US Department of Transportation grants a foreign carrier licence to the company.
Norwegian’s US opponents, including the ‘big three’ US legacy airlines — American, United and Delta — and a number of US unions, including the Airline Pilots Organisation, have said they are concerned that NAI is a “flag of convenience” designed to circumvent the labour laws of Norway and the US.
US legacy airlines also tried to block low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines from entering the US domestic market.
In NAI’s case, the opponents have alleged that Norwegian offers sub-standard working conditions, that its union is hostile, and that its business model compromises safety.
Aviation analysts have described their arguments as “anti-competitive”.
Their concerns, which have been brought to the US Congress, are understood to have delayed the US Department of Transport’s decision on the foreign carrier permit.
Submitted more than two years ago, the licence application is now the longest pending application of its kind. Norwegian has emphatically rejected its opponents’ claims, saying that NAI fully complies with European safety standards, and that its staff in the US and Norway follow the labour laws of these countries and are trained according to EU standards.
It says NAI was set up here to access future traffic rights to and from the EU, because this country has fully adapted the Cape Town Convention, which provides Norwegian with better financing conditions, and because of Ireland’s high standing in the global aviation industry.
Norwegian said it has employed more than 300 US cabin crew in Fort Lauderdale and New York, and that it received almost 6,000 applications for the positions.
It says its US staff say their wages and benefits are better than those of their US airline counterparts, and that its intercontinental long-haul pilots have a global pay scale, which means they all earn about the same.
It also says that most of its pilots, cabin crew, technicians and admin staff in Scandinavia are union members.