At least some airline travelers could breathe a sigh of relief on Tuesday, when Norway’s labour minister ordered striking aircraft technicians back to work. She claimed their ongoing labour action, which has forced scores of flight cancellations, also had begun to pose a threat to air ambulance service, and thus life and health.
“I have unfortunately not had any choice,” Marte Mjøs Persen of the Labour Party told reporters. “The risk here applied especially to patients who become seriously ill and have an acute need for transport over long distances, which can only be provided by air ambulances.”
The company now operating Norway’s air ambulances, Babcock, had applied for dispensation from a lockout that earlier had been issued against all members of the union representing the Norwegian aircraft technicians, NFO. It had been demanding pay raises of as much as 18 percent, claiming that its members have had lower pay growth than other groups and needed to attract others to the profession.
Employers’ organization NHO, and even some other trade union federations, found the pay demands excessive, with NHO calling them “unrealistic.” The strike by the technicians, whose average wages already amount to nearly NOK 800,000 a year (USD 83,000), also failed to get much sympathy from the public, not least since most raises this year amount to less than 4 percent.
The employers then declared the lockout, which also applied to NFO members servicing the air ambulances. Commercial airlines affected also could no longer transport important medicines to Northern Norway, for example. Babcock, meanwhile, claimed that it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its contract with the state if its air ambulances were grounded because of a lack of regular maintenance.
NHO, however, refused to give Babcock dispensation, which in turn prompted the government to end the strike through a process called tvungen lønnsnemnd that forces a wage settlement.
It also means that airlines which have had to ground aircraft in need of regularly scheduled maintenance can now get it again and get their jets back in the air. Labour Minister Persen was reluctant to intervene but could then claim that health authorities had decided that the strike must be ended in order to avoid endangering life and health.
Union leaders were predictably disappointed, countering that they were keen to shield the air ambulances from any maintenance disruption. Several air ambulances were nonethess grounded in Alta, Kirkenes and Ålesund until technicians returned to their bases to performan technical controal.
Domestic airline Widerøe and its passengers had suffered the most during the strike, because dozens of its flights had to be cancelled. Norwegian Air also had to cancel flights but both hoped to be mostly back on schedule within a few days. Widerøe cautioned that it may take longer, because it has “many” aircraft parked and waiting for maintenance or repair.
The threat of a strike by pilots at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), however, continued to loom. If SAS pilots don’t agree on a new contract with the airline by midnight Tuesday, the vast majority of its flights will also be cancelled from Wednesday unless talks go into overtime. The Norwegian government, meanwhile, changed its mind and decided to convert SAS’ debt to the state into shares after all. That may improve SAS’ financial position, which has threatened it may go bankrupt if the pilots won’t accept a restructuring aimed at cutting costs.