Mediation was getting underway on Thursday between Norwegian Air and around 700 of its Scandinavian pilots who claim their willingness to go out on strike this weekend is high. The airline’s management is demanding cuts in their pensions, pay and insurance benefits after losses tied to Norwegian’s intercontinental expansion.
Members of the Norwegian Pilot Union who are employed in the airline’s subsidiary Norwegian Air Norway (NAN) have been negotiating with Norwegian Air’s management for months. The two sides have failed to reach agreement, leading to the sessions starting Thursday with state mediator Nils Dalseide.
If they fail to come to terms by midnight Friday, the union will pull 70 of its pilots off the job from Saturday morning during the first phase of a strike that would severely disrupt Norwegian flight schedules.
“We have come to a point where enough’s enough,” pilot Morten Strandås told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday morning. He said he had faith that a settlement was possible through mediation, “but we have no possibility to work under the terms they have set for us.”
Bankruptcy fears loom
Airline management has already resorted to using much cheaper Asian and other non-Scandinavian pilots and crews hired through crewing agencies for its recent route expansion. The company claims its Scandinavian pilots who were part of founding the airline just over a decade ago have become far too expensive and that their costs must be reduced.
The pilots fear that Norwegian Air will declare the company unit in which they’re officially employed, NAN, bankrupt and try to replace them with pilots from overseas crewing agencies. Union leader Halvor Vatnar told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that the pilots are mostly fighting for a permanent collective bargaining agreement with Norwegian Air’s parent company, Norwegian Air Shuttle. “The parent company is our real employer,” Vatnar told DN. “This is really a ‘to be or not to be’ issue for pilots with collective protection. The airline can’t simply get rid of us without shutting down its routes for good.”
Anne-Sissel Skånvik, communications director for Norway, wouldn’t comment on whether bankruptcy looms over NAN if the pilots strike this weekend. “We don’t want to enter into mediation on that note,” Skånvik told DN. “The goal is to continue to be a strong airline with our pilots as part of the team. If we don’t reach our goals in mediation, the situation will be extremely serious, not just for the pilots but also for the entire company.”
The union’s labour federation Parat claims the pilots would have priority for any and all jobs transferred to another entity if NAN is declared bankrupt. “And then they can also demand a collective bargaining agreement with that new employer,” Christen Horn Johannessen, a lawyer for Parat, told DN.
Norwegian had been a profitable and high-flying upstart airline that posed new competition for arch-rival SAS as it literally spread its wings around Europe, offering lower fares with new aircraft and mostly Scandinavian crews. Its entry into the intercontinental market in 2013, however, ended up causing major problems and expense because of technical troubles with its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The airline that had prided itself on good service and reliability was suddenly accused of offering anything but, with passengers furious and its employees feeling betrayed over Norwegian’s decision to operate the intercontinental routes with Asian crews who were paid a fraction of what their Scandinavian colleagues earned.
The airline’s once-popular boss Bjørn Kjos has since been on the defensive while he also grapples with European and US regulations that threaten his use of the cheaper crews on new flights to the US. Management and staff have lost confidence in each other and the airline’s woes were recently topped off by a pre-tax loss of NOK 1.6 billion, mostly because of extraordinary costs tied to the troublesome intercontinental expansion.
“I’m still optimistic (that a settlement can be reached),” Vatnar of the pilot’s union told DN. “But it seems like Bjørn Kjos is still trying to conquer the world without having his soldiers on board.” Kjos deferred comments to Skånvik.