Rumbling within the pilots’ ranks

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Dissension reportedly has been growing among the 650 pilots on strike at Norwegian Air, as their union failed to come to terms with the airline’s management. Some pilots say they fear their own union may drive the airline into the ground.

Norwegian Air flights remained mostly grounded in Scandinavia after mediation failed between the airline and its pilots' union. PHOTO: Norwegian Air Shuttle

Norwegian Air flights remained mostly grounded in Scandinavia after mediation failed between the airline and its pilots’ union. PHOTO: Norwegian Air Shuttle

Norwegian Air was forced to once again cancel most of its flights within Scandinavia on Saturday after all-night attempts to reach a settlement with the Norwegian Pilot Union failed. Several flights from Oslo to European destinations including Salzburg, Budapest and the Canary Islands were still scheduled, though, and Norwegian’s long-haul flights to Bangkok and the US were also operating, because they’re run by non-Scandinavian, lower-paid crews. Passengers faced delays on several of the European flights.

In a press release issued by Norwegian Air after the talks broke down, management expressed its deep regret that no settlement had been reached. Norwegian officials said they “intensely” wanted to end the strike, and called on the union to meet again for talks, possibly later in the day. The union also expressed regret over the failed talks and its leaders claimed they would welcome new efforts to reach a settlement.

Splits emerging within the union
Signs continue to emerge, meanwhile, that the pilots themselves are split over their union’s tactics and demands. The rumbling within the ranks of the Scandinavian pilots began to emerge at mid-week, when it first became clear that not all the pilots supported their union’s tough stance. The rumbling was initially dismissed, not least because Norwegian Air’s chief executive Bjørn Kjos had claimed many pilots supported his opposition to the union’s demands. Both the union’s leaders and local media viewed Kjos’ claims as part of management’s negotiating tactics and their credibility was called into question.

On Thursday, however, newspaper Aftenposten reported that several pilots disagreed with their union and praised Kjos. One pilot told the newspaper that “we probably have some of the best working conditions in the industry,” and later that day, Norwegian Air itself revealed average pay and working conditions for the pilots’ group that management claimed was endangering jobs within the entire company.

On Friday morning, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that it also had been in contact with many individual pilots who supported Kjos, a former pilot himself, and worried that their own union could “drive Norwegian into the ground.” One pilot claimed that the pilots’ union “was risking our jobs” and that its demands were unreasonable in the highly competitive and international airline industry.

“Pilots can’t live in their own bubble, in a past that no longer exists,” one pilot who didn’t want to be identified told NRK. He said neither pilots nor pilot unions can expect that the high pay and working conditions they’ve enjoyed in earlier years can continue indefinitely.

Warnings from the past
Audun Tjomsland, who once worked as information director for the former mostly domestic airline Braathens SAFE in Norway, warned in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that Norwegian Air must not “end up like Braathen SAFE,” which faced major and expensive conflicts with its unions in the 1990s. The airline, he wrote, ended up being taken over by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), to avoid going bankrupt.

Labour leaders at the Norwegian Pilot Union and its trade union federation YS/Parat continued to claim that the pilots were united in their demands, but their tone became more conciliatory on Friday and they said they regretted some of the harsh language they’d used. The union’s spokesman had already apologized for making false statements about Norwegian’s management plans earlier in the week.

Norwegian Air’s management, meanwhile, revealed detailed information about what they’d offered, and seen rejected, by the pilots’ union. The airline claimed it had offered the pilots job security, the same “solid” pay they’ve had and, “not least, a tie to the parent company” in the form of a three-year guarantee against staffing cuts in the new subsidiaries where the pilots are employed.

“Therefore we are extremely disappointed that it wasn’t possible to reach an agreement with the Norwegian Pilot Union and Parat (the trade union federation),” Norwegian stated. “The pilot strike therefore will unfortunately continue indefinitely.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund