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US unions say Irish flights are an early test for Trump

December 26th, 2016 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

The Norwegian (NAI) flights could be up and running by next summer, if Trump's administration doesn't put a spanner in the works, in the New Year. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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The permit for Norwegian’s flights from Cork to the US will test president-elect Trump’s promised commitment to US jobs, American airline unions believe. Siobhán Cronin reports

JUST when it seemed that Cork’s first scheduled transatlantic flights were on the way, a chink appeared in the armour.

Within hours of the decision to grant Norwegian Air International (NAI) a permit to fly from Cork and Shannon to the US, transport unions in the US had reignited their campaign to block the plan.

Using a social media hashtag – a public clarion call – of #DenyNAI, the unions had earlier launched a very strong lobby to prevent the US Department of Transport from granting the licences. And while they lost the initial fight, they haven’t given up.

The unions are fearful that the Norwegian model of low fares – a transantlantic version of the Ryanair model in Europe – will drive down prices, and therefore wages, in the sector. They might even threaten actual jobs, they say.

The powerful transport unions believe that what they perceive as a ‘race to the bottom’ will mean an overall ‘dumbing down’ of their sector which so far has managed to block a significant price war on the Europe to US routes.

Norwegian has already claimed it will be able to provide initial one-way flights from Ireland to America for about €70 including taxes, which would surely be a game-changer for the industry.

The boomtime surge in ‘shopping’ flights from Ireland to New York, Boston and other US cities, has virtually dried up in recent years, but this bold move by Norwegian could see a resurgence in weekend trips across the Atlantic.

It could also mean a major boost for Fáilte Ireland’s already successful Wild Atlantic Way initiative, allowing the tourism body to target more short-term, younger and less well-heeled tourists.

Both of the Irish airports covered by the Norwegian permit are close to the world’s longest coastal touring route, which has been a particular hit with American visitors.

But what of the latest threat to the permit from the #DenyNAI pressure group?

Bizarrely, the EU-Open Skies agreement – which allows for more competition in the skies – has become part of a tug-of-hate between the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ camps.

Before the licence was granted last week, the Agreement was being cited by the pro-permit camp, including Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune, as a reason why the routes must be given the go-ahead. 

‘I am concerned about what consequences this matter could have, not only for relations in aviation but for overall transatlantic relations. It is of the utmost importance that agreements like Open Skies are upheld and this impasse sets a bad example at a time when bilateral ties may be strained and questioned by many sectors of our societies,’ she said last month, criticising the delay with the permit, just days before the permit was granted.

But since the good news for Norwegian was aired, the US transport unions have been quoting the very same agreement to back their claim that the permit is unfair.

‘NAI’s business model clearly and blatantly violates Article 17 of the 2010 US-EU Open Skies Agreement,’ said the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) last week, representing 32 transport unions. It added that the Agreement ‘states that the opportunities created by the Agreement are not intended to undermine labor standards or the labor-related rights and principles contained in the Parties’ respective laws.’ 

Immediately after the permit was announced, an obviously co-ordinated media campaign sprang into action, voicing the US airline industry’s concerns about Norwegian’s plans.

And, pointing out that the permit allowed for a ‘60-day cooling-off period’ the unions highlighted, with some element of glee, that the period would extend into incoming president Donald Trump’s tenure.

They have latched onto Trump’s declaration of intent to protect US jobs and pointed out that allowing a ‘low fares’ model on transatlantic routes could threaten their own airline jobs. 

‘We are pleased with US President-Elect Donald J.Trump’s stand on trade, and we look forward to working with the next administration to safeguard US jobs,’ said Capt Tim Canoll of the American Air Line Pilots Association, ALPA.

‘Unless reversed, this decision threatens a generation of US airline jobs and tells foreign airlines that scour the globe for cheap labor and lax employment laws that America is open for business,’ added the TTD. ‘Given the disgust with our trade policies expressed loudly by American voters on November 8, it is especially galling that the Administration has ignored the wants of the American people in favor of a rogue, foreign airline.’

But what the TTD describes as a ‘rogue airline’ has been welcomed with open arms on this side of the Atlantic.

‘Cork Airport is celebrating today following the long-awaited announcement overnight that the US Department of Transportation has granted a licence to Norwegian Air International to operate the first direct transatlantic flights between Cork and the United States,’ said a spokesman for the airport on the Saturday morning after the Friday night annoucement.

The airport’s Niall McCarthy called it ‘momentous news’ and added that it would ‘permanently transform the transatlantic market in Ireland and further afield for the better.’

Norwegian will do for transatlantic travel what Ryanair has done for European travel, bringing lower fares, increased competition and growth to the overall market, McCarthy added.

‘This most welcome news is a game changer in terms of tourism and economic development in the wider Cork region,’ said Conor Healy of business lobby group Cork Chamber.

But while she, too, welcomed the news, MEP Deirdre Clune sounded a cautious note. Just days after announcing an Italian arbitrator had been appointed to negotiate in the row between the EU and the US over the flights, she pointed out: ‘The European Commission won’t withdraw the arbitration process until we have a signed and irreversible deal on the table regarding the Norwegian licence. In the unlikely event that the Trump administration attempt to overturn the decision, arbitration will still be open to us as an option under the OpenSKies agreement.’ 

There was also a slightly less-ecstatic response from Niall McCarthy when Trump’s possible intervention was mentioned by The Southern Star

‘The order to grant the licence did provide for a 61 day ‘cooling off period’. All of the advice we have received tells us the chances of it failing now or being reversed are very small indeed,’ he told us.

John Hosford, a West Cork businessman who has been a very vocal supporter of the Norwegian plan, pointed out that Trump has business interests in Co Clare, so would ultimately benefit from low-cost fares on the Shannon to US routes.

‘Blocking off new connections is not advantageous to either side of the Atlantic,’ said Mr Hosford. He [Trump] has his own development in Doonbeg in Co Clare which will also benefit from opening up of the Norwegian Air routes. Introducing more competition in the airline industry will stimulate tourism bilaterally,’ he told The Southern Star.

Mr Hosford said that any more objections or further delays to this service must now be opposed ‘vehemently’ in order to get the new routes off the ground as soon as possible. 

‘I believe an early rapport needs to be made with [US] Transportation Secretary-designate Chao,’ he added. ‘And I warmly welcome the decision to grant the licence. I do believe it is a game-changer for Cork. It is definitely the most exciting announcement from the airport this decade, and all involved at the airport – and the public representatives – should be rightly acknowledged and appreciated  for all their efforts in achieving this positive decision.’

But the airline unions say the Norwegian permit will be the first big test of Trump’s commitment to American jobs.

When the issue ‘drops on Trump’s desk’ as aviation journalist Marisa Garcia – writing on flightchic.com – put it recently, the new US President with be faced with an interesting dilemma:

‘Should Trump disapprove the order immediately, he will be siding with the Democrats, giving them what they wanted all along. Should he let the NAI license go into effect, he will be bucking his own claims of defending US jobs, at least as the unions involved in the opposition will see things.’

An interesting few weeks ahead for aviation – and Cork Airport – for sure.

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