Norwegian Air International: What's Past Is Prologue | Commentary

Will U.S. commercial aviation travel the same path as U.S. maritime where flags of convenience cripple an important part of our economy?

Right now, the Senate must decide if it will join the House in passing legislation that will help prevent Norwegian Air International and similar fly-by-night flag-of-convenience operators from entering our skies.

Lessons learned in the U.S. maritime industry show how allowing companies to cherry pick among different national regulatory regimes can sink a great industry — and with it tens of thousands of jobs. Will the airline industry be the next to go? Will U.S. passenger airlines follow in the footsteps of the U.S. steel industry, American automakers and the other manufacturing industries that once provided family-supporting wages, retirement security, college tuition and the other trappings of a middle class lifestyle for so many Americans?

Take it from those who have made their livelihood in the American merchant marine. The pattern of legal subterfuge that has virtually destroyed the national merchant fleet of the world’s once greatest trading nation now threatens to cut the legs out from under the American airline industry.

“Flag of convenience” is the name given to the system that allows U.S. and other first-world ship owners to register their vessels under the laws of countries such as Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands. By registering their cargo ships, cruise ships and even fishing boats in these far-away lands, they avoid the legal obligations of their own countries. The system enables these staunch advocates of free trade to evade national taxes, labor standards, safety and environmental regulations and in some cases even criminal responsibility.

Absent the protection of our national interest by Congress and the Department of Transportation, the destructive flag of convenience model will be extended from the seas to the skies by Norwegian Air International, which is trying to obtain a permit to land its aircraft in the United States. NAI promises low fares that conjure up fond memories of Laker Airways, Peoples Express and ValueJet. But NAI is not the same. Let me tell you why.

Although it is a subsidiary of the Norwegian carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle, NAI seeks to operate as an Irish airline. The subterfuge would allow it to benefit from the more “business-friendly” regulations of the Republic of Ireland. As an “Irish” company (which however has no plans to operate out of Ireland), NAI can avoid complying with Norwegian tax and labor laws.

But that’s not all: NAI plans to use pilots and flight attendants based in Thailand who would work for independent contractors under the legal and regulatory regimes of Asian countries — in the case of pilots, Singapore. NAI pilots and flight attendants would be “rented out” to the airline by third parties, beyond the reach of European labor laws and with no responsibility to provide their workers with otherwise mandatory benefits, such as health care or pensions.

Norwegian Air International sees a golden dawn of exploiting low cost labor, wherever available, free of regulation. Its flight attendants and pilots would be like the thousands of third-world seafarers who labor today as forgotten pawns in the world economy,

U.S. merchant ships were once leaders in carrying American imports and exports to and from our nation’s shores. But because of the shift to a flag of convenience model virtually identical to that being pushed by NAI, within the space of a few decades, the amount of U.S. foreign trade carried on U.S. ships has dropped to less than 2 percent. We can’t let this happen to the airline industry. Doing business in the United States is a privilege. It must carry commensurate responsibility.

DOT must draw a line against NAI’s attempt to shirk the regulatory regime of its home country in order to gain an unfair competitive advantage over America’s airline carriers. The U.S. Senate needs to join the House in keeping the skies friendly. If our government leaders don’t act accordingly, thousands of American taxpayers — pilots, flight attendants and mechanics — will lose their jobs. And maritime’s past will indeed become aviation’s prologue.

Captain Don Marcus is the president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, which represents deck officers on U.S. flagged ships engaged in both international trade and on inland waterways.