MONEY Airlines

Your Best Shot at a Cheap Flight to Europe Is in Jeopardy

Norwegian Airplanes
Norwegian Air has drawn criticism alongside its reputation for low-cost flights within Europe and, more recently, on transatlantic flights from the U.S. Scanpix Sweden—Reuters

Airline worker unions and the world's biggest airlines are ganging up on a carrier that recently brought long-awaited cheap transatlantic flights back to U.S. travelers. How cheap? Often under $500 total.

In early June, Norwegian Air marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of service between the U.S. and Europe. The airline, known for much of its history as a low-fare carrier mainly in competition with Ryanair, EasyJet, and other airlines duking it out for budget travelers flying within Europe, has gotten plenty of attention over the past year for its incredibly cheap transatlantic flights.

Last year, Norwegian introduced several round-trip U.S.-Europe fares for under $500—amazingly, with taxes and fees included—on routes between Scandinavia and U.S. gateways such as Orlando, Los Angeles, Oakland, and New York-JFK. Lately, Norwegian is advertising one-way fares such as New York to London for $259, New York to Oslo for $211, and Oakland to Oslo for $244. Again, all taxes and fees included, which is astonishing considering that travelers have grown accustomed to the taxes-and-fees portion of transatlantic flights tacking on several hundred dollars in addition to the cost of, you know, actually flying.

In addition to drawing the attention of travelers eager for the arrival of a cheaper means to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Norwegian Air has also been a magnet for criticism from both airline competitors and airline employees. Airline worker groups have accused Norwegian of being ruthlessly anti-union for its policy of hiring Thai pilots and American airline attendants on the cheap, rather than higher-paid union Norwegian employees. The major U.S. airlines have been trying to stop Norwegian from expanding service for the transatlantic market via a subsidiary airline (Norwegian Air International), claiming that the company’s plans of setting up headquarters in Ireland amount to the creation of a “shell company,” and that its business practices are “not in the public interest.” At the end of May, the U.S.-based Air Line Pilots Association began lobbying federal authorities to block planned Norwegian Air flights to the U.S. because the airline supposedly is circumventing labor rules to gain an unfair advantage over the competition. There has been plenty of hinting that flying on Norwegian is unsafe as well.

On June 4, the day of its one-year anniversary for service to the U.S., Norwegian attempted to set the record straight with a press release taking on the accusations one by one. For instance, the release states that Norwegian Air is not anti-union:

A majority of Norwegian’s pilots and cabin crew members in Scandinavia are union members. Technicians and administrative employees are also union members.

There’s nothing unsafe about the business model either, the release claims:

Norwegian has been running a safe airline operation since 1993 with no registered accidents or major incidents. Safety has always been the company’s number one priority.

Most interestingly, Norwegian takes several shots at the competition, accusing the big carriers of charging far more than is reasonable for international flights:

Norwegian believes that competition on intercontinental flights is long overdue. Flights between the U.S. and Europe have traditionally been way too expensive. Why should a flight between New York and Europe cost three times as much as a flight between New York and Los Angeles? The flight to Europe is only about an hour longer, sometimes even less.

Previously, Norwegian Air has been more brash in lashing out at critics. When asked about concerns that the airline was no longer really a Norwegian carrier, and that is abandoning its homeland by establishing a home base in Ireland, CEO Bjørn Kjos said bluntly, “We don’t give a s*** about that. We go where the passengers go. Norway is just too small to survive.”

“It’s obvious that they’re afraid of competition,” Norwegian spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen said earlier this year, referring to the airline competitors arguing against Norwegian’s plans. “Their strategy is to make false allegations in an attempt to prevent American travelers from getting inexpensive airfare to Europe.”

It’s no surprise where travelers and consumer groups stand on the issue. They want cheaper flight options to Europe, even if it’s via the Norwegian Air model, which–also no surprise–is rife with fees as a tradeoff for inexpensive upfront fares. Many believe it’s high time for true competition to return to the transatlantic flight market (if it ever actually existed, that is). “The other airlines are used to jacking up their prices because there is virtually zero competition,” a recent post at Consumer Traveler stated. “Only three alliances compete against each other across the Atlantic. Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam control about 85 percent of transatlantic traffic.”

For an example of how Norwegian matches up against the competition, a recent fare search showed a round-trip from Oakland to Oslo at the end of the summer coming to a total of $592, including all taxes and surcharges. The nearest competitor for a Bay area round trip to Oslo on the exact same dates was well over $1,000. Even if you never fly on Norwegian Air, you should probably be happy that it exists—and that it’s putting some pricing pressure on the competition.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that airline groups have been trying to shut Norwegian Air out of the transatlantic market. The efforts are focused on stopping Norwegian Air’s plan to expand transatlantic flights via a subsidiary airline being established in Ireland.]

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