Plans to launch the first transatlantic flights from Cork Airport to the US have finally been cleared for take-off after a stalled licence was sanctioned last night,
It followed a decision by the US authorities to grant a foreign carrier permit to Norwegian Air International (NAI) - the Irish subsidiary of low-fares giant Norwegian, which applied for the licence almost three years ago.
Bitterly opposed by several US and European airlines and labour unions, the application has been one of the longest pending applications of its kind.
They accused the airline of operating a flag of convenience to skirt labour laws.
However, the airline, the Irish authorities and the European Commission insisted that the application complied with the 2007 EU-US Open Skies deal.
The US Department of Transportation issued a tentative decision in April flagging its intention to grant NAI a licence.
However, when a final decision was not forthcoming, the European Commission triggered arbitration, as allowed under the Open Skies deal.
The EC named its arbitrator and lodged formal papers on Wednesday to trigger the process.
But in a surprise move last night, the US Department of Transportation confirmed that it was now issuing its final decision and granting the licence.
It said the case was among the most novel and complex ever understated by the department.
"We have taken the necessary amount of time to review and consider the comments from a wider range of stakeholders.
"Regardless of our appreciation of the public policy arguments raised by opponents, we have been advised that the law and our bilateral obligations leave us no avenue to reject this application.
"Therefore, we have decided to finalise our tentative decision to grant NAI's request for a foreign carrier air permit to enable it to conduct scheduled and charter air transportation of persons, property and mail to the full extent permitted under the EU-US agreement."
It said having considered all the submissions, it found that the "clear weight of legal analysis in this case directs us to uphold the tentative findings and conclusions previously made".
NAI announced plans last year to launch a Cork to Boston service first, followed by a Cork to New York route later.
It also plans to launch low-cost transatlantic flights from Shannon.
Norwegian Air International welcomed the news releasing a press release that said: "We welcome the long overdue news that Norwegian Air International (NAI) has finally been awarded a foreign carrier permit by the US Department of Transportation.
"The decision now made by the US DOT finally paves the way for greater competition, more flights and more jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. Above all, it is a victory for millions of passengers who will benefit from more choice and lower fares."
Cork Airport managing director, Niall MacCarthy, welcomed the news and described the proposed service as a game-changer for the airport and wider region.
“These flights will help grow inbound tourism, give Cork Airport’s passengers greater choice, attract more investment to the region and improve social and cultural ties between Ireland and the US. We expect Boston bound flights to take off in coming months with New York flights beginning soon afterwards.
"Securing a transatlantic service for Ireland’s second largest airport has been an aspiration of ours for some time and Norwegian Air’s service will be welcomed by business and leisure travellers throughout the region.”
Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune, and European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy, also welcomed the news.
Ms Clune said it would be good for investment, tourism and connectivity.
"It is now imperative that we facilitate these flights out of Cork and Shannon as soon as possible," she said.
Lord Mayor Cllr Des Cahill said he looked forward to the Cork Boston route starting next year.
"Huge credit is due to the resilience of the management team at Cork Airport and all at Norwegian who have waited patiently for this day to come," he said.
Speaking in New York, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: "On the last occasion in the White House speaking to President Obama we did raise the issue that had been around for a while, in respect of the proposal by Norwegian Air to fly direct to America from Cork and Shannon and to do for long-haul travel what Ryanair have done for short-haul travel in Europe.
"And so here in the Irish consulate in New York, I am pleased to tell you that following that conversation and all of the discussions that have taken place since, approval issues today for Norwegian air."
He added: "Looking to the future we will continue to stand tall and strong."
Conor Healy, the CEO of Cork Chamber, said the announcement warmly was a game changer in terms of tourism and economic development for the wider Cork region.
"It has taken considerable collaborative efforts by Cork airport, elected representatives, the business and tourism communities and local authorities in Cork to realise this milestone and we look forward to seeing the benefits in the time ahead," he said.
"The Chief Executive of Cork County Council, Tim Lucey and Count Mayor , Cllr. Seamus McGrath congratulated the DAA and Cork Airport.
"This is a significant boost to the Cork region in particular from a tourism perspective and offers a potential gamechanger opportunity to all involved in the tourism industry to drive growth in US visitors to Cork," they said.
Cork County Council will continue to work alongside Cork Airport to maximise this unique opportunity.
The Chief Executive and Mayor will lead a small high-powered council visit to Boston, departing Sunday, where they will meet a range of tourism and business organisations.