Norwegian Air’s boss apologizes for chaos

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Bjørn Kjos, who founded Norwegian Air and since has become one of Norway’s most high-profile businessmen, issued a public apology on Wednesday for a string of problems that have angered passengers. He said the airline would now “work hard” to win back customer confidence.

Bjørn Kjos, the embattled founder and chief executive of Norwegian Air, has won far more public sympathy than the airline's striking pilots, according to a VG survey. After 11 "terrible" days, Kjos announced the strike was "finally" over. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Norwegian Air’s founder and chief executive Bjørn Kjos, shown here during the depths of last year’s pilot strike at his airline, has apologized after Norwegian Air’s busy summer travel season got off to a miserable start. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

“We are grateful that so many travelers choose to fly Norwegian and we will work hard to uphold confidence from customers, also in light of the problems we have had now in the beginning of July,” Kjos stated on Norwegian Air’s own website. He stated that he “strongly apologized” to all those affected.

The airline, clearly on a public relations offensive, claimed that nearly 2.8 million passengers had chosen to fly with Norwegian in June, 371,821 more than in the same month last year. Load factors hit 90.2 percent, up 2.2 points, while the passenger count was up 13 percent.

So far this month, however, Norwegian Air has stranded an estimated 5,000 passengers because of an acute lack of pilots to fly its scheduled flights. Passengers have suffered flight cancellations, lengthy delays, uncertainty and ruined summer holidays, after also being angered by extra bills sent by the airline to cover the cost of a new airline seat tax charged from June 1.

It’s the lack of pilots that’s causing the most distress at present, and leaving Norwegian Air unable to carry out its ambitious summer flight schedule. Consumer advocates and insurance companies put the blame entirely on Norwegian Air, which has failed to deliver the product (airline transportation) that it sold to customers. The airline, admitted its own pilot chief Tomas Hesthammer to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday, recruited too few pilots for its summer program and hasn’t been able to tempt enough others to give up their time off by offering double overtime pay.

Pilot drama
Speculation has swirled over whether the pilots, which carried out a lengthy and highly disruptive strike against the airline last year, have been waging their own ongoing protest over their working conditions by refusing  to work overtime and calling in sick. Union officials insist that’s not the case, with Hans-Erik Skjæggerud of the labour organization Parat claiming “that’s not the way we operate” and that he opposes any such work slowdown.

The drama rose this week when some Norwegian Air pilots claimed they faced harassment from other colleagues if they agreed to work on a day off or accept highly paid overtime slots. Both DN and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) have reported that at least one captain has gone public about alleged threats from fellow pilots against those who agree to help the airline out of its scheduling squeeze. Another captain claimed the pilots maintain a “scab list” of pilots who have given up days off to work an extra shift.

“He’s one of the brave ones who wants to help the company and passengers,” Hesthammer told DN on Wednesday. Hesthammer said he heard of pilots who are willing to fly extra being accused of disloyalty to their fellow pilots, or that other pilots wouldn’t share the cockpit with them.

Skjæggerud of the union said there were “rumours” that employee representatives had “registered” which pilots were helping the airline by selling their days off, but that he couldn’t confirm such lists exist. “If any pilot experiences discomfort or feels harassed by colleagues in this manner, it’s of course unacceptable,” Skjæggerud told DN. “That must stop at once.”

‘Responsibility lies with management’
Captain Halvor Vatnar, leader of the Norwegian Pilot Union, denied there’s any “blacklist” of pilots who cooperate with their own airline. Asked whether the pilots’ union wasn’t against pilots selling their days off, Vatnar told DN “that’s voluntary.” He added the airline itself must assume responsibility for the flight schedule it set up: “The management has too few pilots to carry out its planned flight production. They point to higher levels of pilots calling in sick. That’s wrong. Norwegians are furious with us, but the responsibility lies with management.”

Norwegian officials, who still must rely on pilots giving up their own holidays to carry out the airline’s flight schedules this summer, still can’t rule out more delays and cancellations. Martin Skaug Halsos of the Norwegian Consumer Council told news bureau NTB, meanwhile, that passengers have been actively researching their rights in the case of cancelled or severely delayed flights. He confirmed that Norwegian Air must take full responsibility for flight cancellations and delays that are not caused by weather or other factors beyond their control.

“Everything you lose because you didn’t reach your destination in time shall be compensated by the airline, like hotels, rental cars or excursions that couldn’t be cancelled,” Halsos told NTB. The standard compensation is EUR 250 (NOK 2,300). Losses higher than that amount must be documented.

Newspaper Aftenposten calculated that Norwegian’s cancellations over the weekend will likely cost it around NOK 17 million. Frode Steen, a professor of economics at the Norwegian business school NHH (Norges Handelshøyskole) said Norwegian needs to clean up its chaos.

“The cancellations come on top of a loss (against the pilots) in court, payment demands for the seat tax and even suddenly a cut in the weight allowed for carry-on luggage,” Steen told NTB. “This all creates lots of negative PR. If Norwegian cleans up after itself, passengers will forget this by next summer. Otherwise customers and especially families will be willing to pay higher fares at a competing airline if they don’t forget the mess and lack of flight regularity.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund