Norwegian Air ‘wanted a strike’

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More delays and cancellations of Norwegian Air flights were expected on Monday as a pilots’ strike started to disrupt operations. The airline’s management, meanwhile, is being accused of wanting a conflict, in order to file bankruptcy for the subsidiary where the pilots are formally employed and then lay off at least 200 of them.

Norway's low-fare carrier Norwegian has been experiencing much darker days this year, and now faces a pilots' strike on Monday. PHOTO: Norwegian

Dark days for Norwegian Air this week, as the airline cancelled more flights and warned of delays because of a pilots’ strike that began Saturday. Now the airline is also being accused of strike- and union-busting to relieve itself of the relatively high costs of its Scandinavian crews who helped found the airline, but are much more expensive than the foreign crews the airline has been hiring as part of its international expansion. PHOTO: Norwegian

The labour conflict at Norwegian Air that began Saturday started to strand passengers on Sunday when an unusually high number of flight crew members called in sick. On Monday morning, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was reporting that flight attendants were set to launch “sympathy action” to support the pilots, who also have won support from the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF).

The airline cancelled 12 departures early on Monday including round-trip flights between Oslo and Stockholm and between Oslo and Trondheim, Stavanger and Tromsø. Airline spokespersons warned that passengers also should be prepared for more delays throughout the day.

No new talks scheduled
No further labour negotiations have been scheduled since talks with a state mediator broke down shortly after midnight on Friday. Flight operations for Norwegian Air in Scandinavia and Europe were thus expected to be severely disrupted, if not grounded entirely, from Wednesday, when the Norwegian Pilot Union (NPU) is due to pull another 650 pilots off the job, virtually the union’s entire membership.

Norwegian’s intercontinental routes remain unaffected, because they’re crewed by pilots and flight attendants who were hired in at much lower levels of pay and benefits than those held by members of the airline unions in Scandinavia. Norwegian flight operations based from England, Finland and Spain aren’t directly affected because their crewing is also handled largely from outside Scandinavia.

Norwegian’s management had signaled that pilots from the airlines’ cheaper bases abroad would be brought in to replace the striking pilots, a move immediately branded as an “strike-busting” by the unions. Most airline analysts say that Norwegian can’t possibly replace more than 600 pilots out on strike, and with no new negotiations going on between the two sides, thousands of passengers were likely to be stranded at midweek.

More serious ‘strike-busting’ claims
The “strike-busting” accusations became stronger on Monday, when Oslo-based business newspaper Finansavisen reported that Norwegian management, led by the airline’s high-profile chief executive Bjørn Kjos, allegedly wanted a labour conflict. Unidentified sources within the company claimed that a pilots’ strike would give management reason to declare bankruptcy of its Norwegian Air Norway (NAN) subsidiary, which officially employs the pilots.

According to the alleged internal plan reported by Finansavisen, around 200 of NAN’s pilot’s would be laid off while the other 500 would be offered new contracts through the crewing agency OSM Aviation, presumably at lower rates of pay and benefits. Newspaper Dagbladet reported that the decision to file for bankruptcy or simply shut down NAN may be taken at a hastily called meeting of Norwegian’s board early this week.

The pilots are being warned against entering into new contracts with OSM Aviation, which is run by the brother of Crown Princess Mette-Marit, Espen Høiby. He’s a former pilot for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) who told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) last year, when OSM Aviation was formed, that “international aviation will go the same way as shipping,” in which vessels were flagged out to low-cost countries with minimal regulation of the labour market so that shipowners could hire much cheaper crews under much less-costly labour conditions. OSM Aviation already works with Norwegian Air in Spain and the US, providing crews to the airline who are paid far less than their Scandinavian colleagues.

‘Serious consequences’
Anne-Sissel Skånvik, communications director for Norwegian, told Dagbladet that it was only natural for the airline’s board to be concerned about the pilots’ strike, and keen to discuss “the serious situation” in which the airline now finds itself. She blamed the pilots’ union for launching a strike that will have “serious consequences, not just for management but for all the airline’s employees.”

Union leaders, with members who live in high-cost Scandinavia, warn of the consequences for Norwegian themselves. They blame management for insisting on cuts in the pilots’ pensions, pay, benefits and insurance costs, even though some of the pilots are among the most highly paid in the airline.

Hans-Erik Skjæggerud, leader of the union’s labour federation Parat, told news bureau NTB it would be “extremely risky” for Norwegian to undermine employees’ rights to negotiations and job protection in Norway by trying to shut down the subsidiary where the pilots are employed. The head of the Norwegian employers’ association NHO, Kristin Skogen Lund, said over the weekend that NHO believes Norwegian’s management would be within its rights to do so. Court cases would likely need to decide who’s right.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund