Strike settles over Norwegian Air

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UPDATED: Norwegian Air flights were still running on schedule Wednesday, but passengers face delays or cancellations on domestic routes in Norway and on flights to European destinations from Norway and Denmark within five to 19 days. The labour organization representing flight attendants in Norway, Parat, called for a strike on Wednesday that’s set to expand if their colleagues in Denmark strike as well.

Norwegian Air has been among the airlines hit hard by air traffic delays in recent weeks, and its executives have been complaining on behalf of frustrated passengers. PHOTO: Norwegian Air

Traffic disruption looms at Norwegian Air after the airline’s management and flight attendants in Norway failed to come to terms during the night. PHOTO: Norwegian Air

Talks between Norwegian Air management and labour representatives for its cabin crews in Norway broke off shortly after midnight on Tuesday, meaning that the low-fare carrier now faces its first strike in its 10-year history.

Flights were operating normally on Wednesday, however, and were expected to do so for at least the next five days pending results of labour negotiations with the airline’s Danish cabin crews. The Norwegians’ decision to strike triggered a deadline for mediation in Denmark that now runs out in 14 days with a five-day buffer period.

That in turn means that uncertainty over the operation of Norwegians flights within Norway and around Europe will continue until a decision is made over whether the strike will be expanded. Parat opted to symbolically pull only one flight attendant off the job on Wednesday until results of similar negotiations between the airline’s management and cabin crews in Denmark are known.

Since the Danish flight attendants have much the same complaints over management’s decision to transfer them to new subsidiaries of a holding company, it’s likely the Danish cabin crews will call a strike as well. That could virtually ground all Norwegian flights in Europe and Scandinavia that originate from Norway and Denmark. Norwegian management claimed they would try to take care of any stranded passengers as best they could, but the airline has no alliance agreements allowing it to transfer passengers over to other carriers. It did have plans, though, for trying to replace aircraft and crews as needed.

Battle over forced transfers
Turid Svendsen, lead negotiator for Parat, announced shortly after 1am on Wednesday that Norwegian’s management had showed “an utter lack of willingness” to address the cabin crew’s concerns. They worry that their transfer to new holding company subsidiaries will lead to a subsequent transfer to crewing agencies. That would legally mean they are no longer employees of the airline itself, and thus fear they will lose the wages and benefits they have built up, not least their pensions.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported early Wednesday that the two sides weren’t even close to any agreement on the issue that set off a confrontation between flight attendants and the airline’s founder and once-high-flying boss Bjørn Kjos. He and his management colleagues have claimed the flight attendants’ pay and benefits will carry over to their new legal employer. Parat claims there are no guarantees for that.

Parat and NHO Luftfart, the employers’ organization conducting negotiations on behalf of Norwegian, had spent 13 hours negotiating through mandatory arbitration when state mediator Bjørn Lillebergen determined there was no basis to put forward any proposed settlement that could be accepted by both sides.

‘Only one demand’
Marit Linden, leader of Norwegian’s flight attendants in Norway, said they had “only one demand,” and that was to continue their current labour contracts with Norwegian Air. She claimed that “wouldn’t have cost either Bjørn Kjos of Norwegian a single extra krone,” but the demand was rejected.

Svendsen of Parat also said Norwegian could have avoided a labour conflict with its flight attendants at no extra cost, but the airline clearly wants and needs the staffing flexibility that transferring them to new units in new holding companies implies. Anne-Sissel Skånvik, communications director for Norwegian, told NRK the transfers were tied to the airline’s financing of new aircraft. She also said the flight attendants wanted reinstatement of far more lucrative pensions that they lost 18 months ago, and that would definitely have cost the airline more money.

It’s unclear when a result of the Danish flight attendants’ labour talks will be known. Until then, Norwegian’s flights are expected to operate as usual but major disruption looms if the Danes also opt to strike. Around 95 percent of Norwegian’s flight attendants are organized, meaning as many as 1,300 of them will be called out on strike.

Norwegian’s new intercontinental flights to Bangkok and the US won’t be affected because they already operate with low-cost non-union Asian crews. Those routes, however, already have been severely disrupted as well, because of ongoing technical problems with the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft that Norwegian uses to run them.

Norwegian flights crewed from bases outside Norway, including Stockholm, Helsinki, London and those in Spain, aren’t directly affected by strikes in Norway and Denmark and thus are expected to continue operating. Norwegian management also said they had plans to lease in aircraft with crews from external suppliers as needed.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund