Cut-rate carrier Wizz Air is already closing the new base it set up in Trondheim last fall. The move comes just a few turbulent months after its entry into Norway’s domestic market was met by labour complaints, regulatory challenges and what the airline itself claims are organized boycotts.
Wizz Air officials told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), however, that the shutdown in Trondheim is tied to the ongoing Corona pandemic and crisis in the airline industry. It insisted it wasn’t giving up on the Norwegian market, just scaling back.
Flights operated with crews and aircraft based at the Værnes Airport in Trondheim will now run from Oslo, a Wizz Air spokesman wrote in an email to DN. The changes won’t affect routes, capacity or weekly departures, he insisted.
Wizz had at one point late last fall around 60 pilots and cabin crew, all flown in from Poland, staying at a hotel near the airport. The airline announced ambitious plans for flights within Norway in addition to those already running mostly from Eastern Europe to Norway. They most often carry labour- and seasonal migrants who work in Norway’s construction, fishing, agricultural and offshore industries.
Norway closed its borders last week, however, in a move aimed at halting or at least trying to control imported Corona virus infection from abroad. Hardly anyone who doesn’t live in Norway can enter the country for at least another 10 days.
Government and local authorities have also urged against all unnecessary travel, also within Norway, especially to prevent the spread of new strains of the virus. That’s further cut back airline travel from a level that already was drastically reduced from pre-Corona times.
Wizz Air had, however, boldly tried to establish domestic service among several Norwegian cities at a time when existing carriers SAS, Norwegian Air and Widerøe are struggling to survive themselves. Wizz established at least seven new routes within Norway but they’ve been scaled back as well after cities including Oslo, Bergen and Stavanger all imposed their own Corona-related shutdowns and urged Norwegians to stay home. DN reported on Tuesday that Wizz Air has only offered one or two flights a day this week to and from Oslo.
The airline, known for opposing organized labour, has also faced far from a warm welcome in Norway. Its treatment of its own crews has sparked harsh criticism not only from Norwegian labour organizations but also politicians including Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives, who publicly stated that she would not fly on an airline that does not have tariff agreements with its employees.
DN had disclosed, for example, how many Wizz Air pilots are only paid by the hour, have to provide for their own pensions and can lose their jobs with no warning. They’re often hired in as sole proprietors, aren’t entitled to any sick pay and Wizz avoids having to compensate them in accordance with Norwegian pay and benefit standards by only temporarily stationing them in Norway for no more than three months at a time. One veteran pilot and leader of a Norwegian pilots’ labour federation called the contracts “extremely unbalanced in the employer’s favour” and use of them would be a “complete scandal” in Norway. Wizz officials wouldn’t comment on the contracts or how they might be used in Norway, because they contained “sensitive information,” but claimed Wizz met European and Norwegian regulations tied to pay and working conditions and was “proud” of the “flexibility” and career possibilities it could offer its pilots and crews from Poland and other countries.
In October, the large labour organization NITO made it clear that its 91,000 engineers, technical workers and other members, would not fly Wizz Air in connection with their jobs. By mid-December hundreds of individuals and organizations ran full-page ads in Norwegian newspapers listing all their names around the slogan “Wizz Air (get) out of Norway.”
Several local city and county governments and even the national electricity distributor Statnett also decided not to fly Wizz Air, prompting the airline to claim it was being “bullied” and would sue several of them on charges of illegal boycotts. All denied they were engaging in a boycott, but complying instead with their own ethical regulations that demand, among other things, workers’ rights to organize.
“I’m amazed that a company (in this case Wizz Air) that wants to establish itself in Norway chooses to attack municipalities and counties instead of spending time to clean up its own uacceptable working conditions,” Bergen Mayor Marte Mjøs Persen told newspaper BA. The mayor of Stord, Gaute Straume Epland, also refused to back down: “We’re not particularly scared by this (the lawsuit threat),” he told business news service E24 in late December. “And we won’t change our position, which is completely in line with our ethical regulations. We have strict purchasing rules with clear demands that we do business only with those who have collective bargaining agreements. I can’t see that we’re breaking any laws with that.”
Meanwhile Norwegian aviation authorities at Luftfartstilsynet promised strict regulation of Wizz Air and claimed in mid-January that by establishing bases in Norway, it had to follow Norwegian labour laws. The government demanded the same. Without honouring rights to collective bargaining agreements, Wizz would also be excluded from competing for routes that the state now subsidizes during the Corona crisis, to ensure airline transport around the country.
Wizz Air wouldn’t respond to questions Tuesday about how many bases it plans to have in Norway after the pandemic subsides and travel resumes.