Pilot pacts ‘can’t guarantee’ take-offs

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UPDATED: Norwegian Air has landed new deals with its pilots that both the airline and the pilots now believe will get passengers to their destinations as scheduled. The airline’s top boss didn’t seem so sure, even though the agreements are aimed at ending a string of flight cancellations and delays that ruined the start of summer holidays for thousands of Norwegian passengers.

Norwegian Air agreed Wednesday evening to hire as many as 50 new pilots in Scandinavia and struck a new deal with its existing pilots to get them to work overtime and sell their days off. Neither side has admitted that there’s been another labour conflict between management at Norwegian Air and Norwegian’s pilots, who staged a disruptive strike last year, but after eight hours of negotiations in the offices of an Oslo law firm, both sides seemed confident Norwegian Air can now carry out its summer program.

Kjos apologized again
On Thursday morning, Norwegian Air’s founder and chief executive Bjørn Kjos wasn’t so sure. After several days of unusual silence, he called a press conference to repeat a stated apology issued on Wednesday and to update the troubled situation.

“We can’t guarantee that there won’t be more cancellations,” Kjos said. He noted that “several hundred flights” were cancelled by airlines flying around Europe just two days ago, for reasons ranging from weather to labour conflicts, “and that can happen to Norwegian also, that we have to cancel.”

Kjos confirmed, however, that his airline’s recent cancellations and delays were mostly caused by a shortage of pilots, which the airline knew it would face as early as last December. He claimed Norwegian Air has operated with such a shortage since its founding and has maintained its busy summer flight schedule by leasing in aircraft and having pilots willing to work on their days off for double overtime pay. The system, Kjos claimed, “has functioned for 14 years and it would have functioned this year also … we didn’t expect that folks (the pilots) would stop selling their days off.”

When Norwegian Air found itself unable to hire in more seasonal pilots and its own pilots unwilling to work overtime on their days off, the airline had to cancel more than 30 flights, stranding thousands of passengers. “First and foremost it’s unfortunate and especially unfortunate for all those who were stranded and weren’t able to take off for holidays,” Kjos said. “We have worked like crazy to avoid that. It has been just terrible.”

Pilots won’t take any blame
The pilots, meanwhile, weren’t willing to take any of the blame. “We said for months that things would go wrong, that we need more pilots,” Halvor Vatnar, a Norwegian Air captain and leader of the Norwegian Pilots’ Union, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday evening. An agreement on overtime work between the pilots’ union and Norwegian had run out July 1 and NRK reported the two sides were due to meet in a local labour court in August to settle conflicts over it.  Until then, the old agreement was supposed to remain in force but pilots started refusing to work overtime after July 1. Vatnar said, though, that the new agreements worked out with the airline on Wednesday will now benefit passengers, employers, shareholders and the company itself.

Norwegian Air’s normally high-profile founder Kjos had stayed in the background over the weekend when cancellations peaked, leaving it to the airline’s communications staff and Tomas Hesthammer, chief of pilots at Norwegian, to deal with the barrage of complaints. “I think this has been extremely embarrasing for Kjos,” Tor W Andreassen, a professor at the Norwegian business school NHH in Bergen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday evening.

On Thursday morning Kjos stressed that “we must operate, we have one of the world’s most modern fleets (of aircraft), we will have that in the future, too. We will have pilots to fly them, cabin crews and folks to receive passengers on the ground. In this case, we made a mistake.”

Hesthammer, meanwhile, said the hiring of new pilots will occur this autumn and thus won’t have any immediate consequences for the troubled summer traffic. “We have also put in place a free-time agreement again,” he noted, though, “so we can buy days off from the pilots.”

He told NRK live on its national newscast Dagsrevyen Wednesday that he thinks that will be enough so that the airline can “get our passengers to their holiday destinations.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund