The embattled founder and chief executive of Norwegian Air faced reporters on Wednesday and called the strike that’s now embroiling the airline “terribly tragic.” Bjørn Kjos also apologized to the 35,000 passengers whose flights were cancelled or delayed after 650 pilots refused to report to work.
“Our first priority is to take care of our passengers,” Kjos claimed, although some of those stranded at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen were far from satisfied with Norwegian’s efforts to get them to their destinations. Several interviewed by state broadcaster NRK, for example, complained that it was “impossible” to get through to the airline by phone and they weren’t getting much information at the airport either.
It’s been a terrible week for Norwegian’s once-high-flying and cheerful CEO, known for his frequent laughter and incessant grin. On Wednesday, the 68-year-old Kjos looked weary and with good reason, after he said he and his staff had “worked all night” on a new proposal to the pilots’ union.
“But when we called to send it over, they (the pilots) had all gone home and gone to bed,” Kjos claimed at a press conference held at Norwegian’s headquarters at Fornebu, west of Oslo. “That shows their willingness to negotiate.”
His comments came after the pilots have accused Kjos and his management of an equal unwillingness to come to terms. The war of words going on between Norwegian and the Norwegian Pilot Union, part of trade union federation Parat, has grown increasingly bitter. Each side has been accusing the other of planting falsehoods, and blaming the other for the strike. “We have to accept that the temperature is high,” Kjos said.
Among the falsehoods, according to Kjos, are the union’s stated concern that plans are afoot to declare the airline subsidiary that employs the striking pilots bankrupt. “That hasn’t even been evaluated, it hasn’t been discussed,” Kjos said. He defended the airline’s structure, with various subsidiaries set up for various functions, calling it “completely normal” in the airline industry. The pilots have demanded to be employed directly through the parent company, but Kjos indicated that’s not up for discussion. He said the airline’s banks demand specific subsidiaries to calculate risk, and the airline’s financing of its orders for new aircraft is at stake.
The pilots, Kjos claimed, “are demanding commercial control over the company, and over all flights in and out of Scandinavia. We can’t have just one company carrying all the risk and responsibility for 5,000 employees.” He made it clear he’s not about to relinquish such control.
So the strike remained deadlocked as of Wednesday afternoon. Kjos repeatedly claimed that Norwegian is most concerned about its passengers and deeply regrets that all the airline’s flights in Scandinavia were grounded as of Wednesday morning. He confirmed attempts to hire in other aircraft to replace grounded flights, and denied that amounted to strike-busting.
Kjos, who fielded questions in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, also said he hopes passengers “come back” to the airline. One thing was clear: Kjos, a former fighter jet pilot, is now fighting for his airline’s survival. “We lost one-point-six billion kroner last year,” he said. There’s a limit, he said, to how long the strike can drag on.