The US government’s top transport official was in Norway this week, but he reportedly had no time to meet one-on-one with the boss of the Norwegian airline that’s eager to launch more new routes to US cities. Bjørn Kjos, founder and CEO of Norwegian Air, was disappointed, and claimed the US is trying to protect its own airlines instead of welcoming lower-emission carriers like his.
“The US is one of the worst (when it comes to airline emissions,)” Kjos claimed during a government conference on how the transport sector can become more “green” and climate-friendly. It was attended not only by transport industry luminaries like the Tesla electric car founder Elon Musk but also the US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Friday that Kjos waited impatiently for a chance to talk Foxx, the Norwegian government’s guest of honour, but only received a quick handshake. “He doesn’t have time to meet with us,” Kjos said.
The Norwegian Air boss, who built up the old Norwegian Air Shuttle service into first a major domestic airline before expanding dramatically throughout Europe and then to Asia and the US, went on to claim that the fleets of US airlines are made up mostly of “quite old and inefficient” aircraft that consume far more jet fuel and generate more emissions than the new aircraft that, for example, make up Norwegian Air’s modern fleet.
“US politicians protect their own airlines,” Kjos said in explaining why his airline has had to wait two years to get an answer on whether Norwegian Air’s Irish subsidiary will be able to fly routes between European and US airports. The route expansion has upset competitors and labour unions representing their pilots and crewmembers because Norwegian’s new routes will be at least partially staffed by lower paid Asian crews.
US airlines, Kjos claimed, “can just drag old museum relics out of (lay-up) in the desert and put them back into service.” He also claimed that airline competition within the US has deteriorated, as a result of bankruptcies and mergers. “It’s expensive to fly over there, and the (US) airlines are only flying old (relics),” Kjos said. Only the use of new, modern aircraft (like his), he claimed can cut airline emissions by the desired level of a third.
Foxx flatly denied that his agenda is to protect US airlines. He stressed that Norwegian’s application to fly new routes between Europe and the US has raised many new and problematic issues, and it’s taken time to resolve them. Foxx told DN that “we have had a very open process” but he had nothing more to say about it.
Kjos arguably had little to complain about this week after just receiving notice last week that Norwegian Air’s application for the new US routes had won preliminary approval. Norway’s own transport minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen, who hosted Thursday’s conference and invited Foxx to dinner at Holmenkollen Thursday evening, told DN that he thinks a permanent solution is imminent. He said Norwegian Air’s application would be a theme at the dinner, without Kjos present.
“I’m happy about the decision from the US last week,” Solvik-Olsen told DN. “It will make our conversation with Foxx easier.” Given all the problems Foxx has had to face with the airline labour unions, Solvik-Olsen thinks the preliminary approval sends a good signal that Foxx is now more confident about his position. A final decision is expected later this spring.
Foxx told DN, though, that he still hasn’t drawn any conclusions because of all the “new and complex” issues it has raised. Norwegian’s application remains under evaluation, “so there’s not much more concrete I can say.”
Kjos fends off losses
Norwegian Air, meanwhile, reported some heavy losses this week (external link to Norwegian’s first-quarter report) and saw its share price fall as much as 5 percent because of costly fuel contracts. Kjos remained relaxed, though, and has no plans to cut back on the airline’s heavy investment in new aircraft that he thinks has given it a valuable asset base.
Kjos also faced criticism from his competitors on his side of the Atlantic, not least Scandianavian Airlines (SAS), over his climate claims, even they were mostly directed at the US airlines. SAS’ chief executive, Rikard Gustafson, retorted that low-fare carriers like Norwegian could make a much bigger contribution towards cutting emissions simply by restraining their route growth ambitions. More flights, he noted, mean more overall emissions.
“It’s not enough to argue that buying new aircraft that use less fuel (will cut emissions),” Gustafson told DN. “An airline’s total emissions say the most about the industry’s climate footprint. If we close our eyes (to the need for sustainability), the industry will be forced to cut emissions,” Gustafson said, either by reducing traffic, or getting hit with new emissions taxes.