Airlines fight over fewer passengers

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UPDATED: As a pilots’ strike at Norwegian Air entered its 11th day on Tuesday, the airline and its rivals are all facing a decline in total passengers for the first time in years. There was no contact during the night, meanwhile, and a new row broke out between Norwegian Air and its striking pilots, leaving passengers to deal with more flight cancellations and lengthy delays.

Planes docked at Oslo Airport's international terminal. Norwegian Air's rapid intercontinental expansion drew criticism from the Civil Aviation Authority after it discovered 21 serious regulatory breaches during an inspection in November. Customers lodged 29,000 complaints, mostly over cancellations and delays. Meanwhile, US airlines and unions lobbied authorities to ban Norwegian from flying to the States, arguing the carrier has breached an agreement by hiring cheaper Thai staff. PHOTO: Oslo Lufthavn AS

All airlines serving Norwegian airports like here at Oslo are facing tough competition and a constant need to lower costs, especially given a decline in total passenger numbers so far this year. That makes the pilots’ strike at Norwegian Air particularly difficult for the airline. PHOTO: Oslo Lufthavn AS

Lawyers for both the airline and the pilots’ union had hammered out yet another offer that was presented to Norwegian’s management and the pilots late Monday night. By mid-morning on Tuesday, there had been no response, and flights for yet another 25,000 Norwegian Air passengers had to be cancelled.

“There’s nothing new,” was all the union’s communications chief, Arve Signumdstad, would tell reporters Tuesday morning. Neither side would reveal details of the new proposal aimed at finally ending one of the most bitter airline strikes in Norwegian history.

Union meeting infuriates Norwegian
Instead of meeting for more negotiations to end the strike, the pilots’ trade union federation YS/Parat called a meeting of Nordic union leaders in Oslo on Tuesday, to seek more cooperation in hindering what Parat calls strike-busting by Norwegian. Parat has not been happy that Norwegian has managed to hire in other aircraft and even buses to help passengers get to their destinations, and wants more support from other unions in stopping the practice. “We have many of the same challenges,” said Parat leader Hans Erik Skjæggerud, adding that it was “frustrating” not to be able to “stop Norwegian when strike-busting occurs.”

Norwegian Air officials deny that helping stranded passengers amounts to strike-busting, and reacted angrily to the union meeting reported by state broadcaster NRK. “This only makes the situation even worse,” airline spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen told NRK. “We are spending several million kroner every single day to take care of our passengers as best we can, either by getting them on other airlines or hiring in aircraft and crews so that at least some of them can travel. If we were only concerned about our bottom line it would be better to just cancel flights, but we won’t do that. We must do all we can to help our passengers in this difficult situation.”

Passenger counts flatten out
The strike comes at a time when fewer passengers are passing through airports in Norway. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Tuesday that airline traffic fell last month for the fourth month in a row, just as competition heats up even more among low-fare carriers throughout Europe.

“We’re seeing a tendency towards the (airline) market flattening out,” Sindre Ånonsen, spokesman for the state-owned civil aviation agency Avinor, told Dagsavisen. Avinor operates Norway’s airports and keeps track of passenger counts. During the first two months of this year, 122,500 fewer passengers flew from Norwegian airports, according to Avinor.

That’s down nearly 2 percent from the same period last year, and Ånonsen said there were “many signals that point towards the economy cooling down.”

That leaves the airlines competing over a smaller base of passengers that most economists claim are attracted first and foremost by low fares. And that makes the strike at Norwegian even harder to handle for an airline that lost NOK 1.6 billion last year.

Union fails to drum up support
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that aviation experts don’t think the pilots’ union has achieved much so far with its strike, and may in fact be harming its own reputation and the airline’s well-being. Professor Tor Andreassen at business school NHH in Bergen claimed that both sides have been unclear in communicating what the strike is actually about, and that the union must realize that passengers are more interested in low fares than the labour principles that the union claims are at stake. Andreassen told Aftenposten that Norwegian’s passengers will likely return when the conflict ends, and that the union’s efforts to smear Norwegian’s image haven’t succeeded.

Andreas Birger Johansen, who holds a master’s degree in rhetoric and works in communications for Norway’s top athletic academy, questions the wisdom and judgment of the pilots’ trade union federation YS/Parat in carrying on such a major strike at a company that posted such a large loss last year. He also notes that the strike is by pilots who earn double the average salary in Norway. That doesn’t stir up much public sympathy for them.

Norwegian Air passengers, meanwhile, continued to face cancellations and lengthy delays on both Scandinavian flights and flights to other destinations in Europe on Tuesday. A flight to Reykjavik, for example, was cancelled while flights to Prague, Berlin and Edinburgh faced delays of up to nine hours. Long-haul flights to Bangkok and the US, however, continued to run on schedule.

Passengers can check the latest status of Norwegian Air flights here (external link). 

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund