As mandatory mediation got underway on Friday between pilots and management at troubled Norwegian Air, the leader of the airline’s negotiating team said he expected a settlement. If none is agreed by midnight on Sunday, around 600 pilots will walk out of their cockpits.
“We have an open mind,” Thore Halvorsen of Norwegian told state broadcaster NRK on Friday. “So we’ll see what happens.”
There’s been little contact between the two sides since negotiations broke off in the middle of October. They didn’t prevail in their arguments for higher pay for pilots, especially those just launching their careers, and then they got angry if not embarrassed when Norwegian management released lists showing that 93 of the airline’s 100 most highly paid employees are pilots. Two of them topped the list, ahead of the airline’s finance director, its operations director and its chief executive officer.
Strike can ground flights
A strike threatened to begin on Monday will ground aircraft in Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim in Norway, at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport and at Kastrup in Copenhagen. Cabin crews’ plans to launch a sympathy strike as well, however, were dashed by a labour court this this, so some flights may take off with non-union pilots and Norwegian’s cabin personnel.
Halvorsen said he ‘wouldn’t start flinging around adjectives” to describe what he thinks of the pay conflict, “but just acknowledge the fact that we are in disagreement.” He still hopes that a settlement can be reached that also will reduce the potential for more labour conflicts at Norwegian Air, which launched regularly scheduled, low-fare service just over a decade ago and hasn’t had the strikes that have plagued rival Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) over the years.
This year, though, has been very tough for the airline, after it launched new intercontinental service using the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Delivery of its new aircraft was delayed because of myriad problems with the new jets, forcing Norwegian to lease in old aircraft to fly its new routes to Bangkok and New York. Passengers were disappointed and then angered by Norwegian’s poor on-board service, lengthy delays and flight cancellations. The airline incurred losses, had to apologize for its customer relations and had crisis meetings with Boeing. Problems and delays have continued, however, seriously damaging Norwegian’s reputation as a reliable, low fare carrier.
Norwegian has also been accused this week of social dumping, after NRK reported that its Thai cabin crews hired to work on board the long-haul flights had base pay of less than NOK 3,000 a month (USD 500). That led to calls for a boycott by some unions in Norway along with strong criticism from unions in the US as well.
Kristine Nergaard of research institute Fafo warned that negotiations between Norwegian and its pilots were likely to be difficult. “This isn’t as much about money as it is about principles,” Nergaard told NRK. She said it’s become more and more common to use pilots (and cabin crews) from other countries and bases, to cut costs, and that’s threatening full-time airline jobs in the Scandinavian countries. “There’s a great deal of argument over this,” she said.
The constant expansion of low-fare carriers ushers in huge pressure to reduce costs, with some labour officials claiming that the trend, and what carriers like Norwegian and Ryanair have been doing, can undermine the social welfare state.