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Career Pilot: The NAI schemeCareer Pilot: The NAI scheme

Is this the beginning of the end for U.S. airline careers?

A recent ruling by the U.S. Department of Transportation has shaken many in the airline industry. The DOT approved Norwegian Air International (NAI) to fly routes between the United States and Europe.
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So what’s wrong with some more competition in the transatlantic market? Plenty, according to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). The union, which represents more than 50,000 pilots at 31 U.S. and Canadian airlines, suggests NAI’s use of cut-rate pilots and flight attendants, sourced from countries where labor is cheap, skirts the United States/European Union Air Transport Agreement (ATA) rules and compromises safety.

Jeff Mitchell, a pilot for a major U.S. carrier who has lobbied against NAI on Capitol Hill, said one of many issues is insecure employment. “NAI pilots are actually employed by a crew-leasing company, not Norwegian Air,” he said. “They work short-term contracts [usually three years], are obligated to prorated training bonds, lack competitive pay and benefits, and have no union representation.”

NAI is registered as an Irish carrier, which allows it to skirt Norway’s tax and labor laws. ALPA claims NAI is not operating from an even playing field when compared to other flag carriers. ALPA explains its side in a YouTube video.

ALPA and others point to the example of the U.S. maritime industry, which was decimated when foreign competition began using “flags of convenience” on merchant marine and cruise vessels operating to and from the United States. (When was the last time you saw a cargo or cruise ship registered in the United States?)

What was once a thriving job market for maritime crewmembers in the United States basically has been eliminated by reflagging vessels to skirt U.S. regulations. ALPA fears the NAI scheme will similarly affect the U.S. aviation industry, pushing airlines to source cheap labor.

“Article 17 bis of the U.S.-EU ATA was designed to explicitly bar this type of ‘flag of convenience’ airline operation from benefiting from the agreement and gaining an unfair advantage over airlines that play by the rules,” Edward Wytkind wrote in The Hill. “Yet, in issuing the permit for NAI to begin flying to the U.S., the DOT coldly cast that provision aside stating that ‘Article 17 bis cannot be decisional in this proceeding.’”

ALPA is concerned about potential safety implications, as well. In these pages, I’ve previously discussed some disturbing accidents involving foreign air carriers that sounded alarms relating to sub-par pilot training. Besides training/experience issues, Mitchell cited “pilot pushing” as a major threat to safety at companies employing contract pilots. “This high stress to perform and increase revenue—usually counter to safety—includes cutting corners on fuel, flying fatigued or sick, and giving up vacation, which are many of the pressures startup airlines struggle with to gain a foothold in market share,” he said.

From the consumer side of the equation, the NAI deal will bring low-cost flights between Europe and the United States. In December 2016, NAI advertised $99 fares to Europe, which is cheaper than most train tickets between New York and Washington, D.C. This will force existing flag carriers to drop prices drastically just to compete, perhaps operating at a loss. If NAI executives have found an end run around some rules to make a profit, so what? Are the pilot’s unions just mad that NAI is using nonunion labor? What’s wrong with a little competition?

ALPA is casting NAI as law-breaking and compromising safety. On the safety front, there’s no proof until, well, it’s too late—and then there is proof. We know that people typically buy tickets based on cost more than anything else. The assumption of safety is already there. The law-breaking side of the argument is also yet to be proven, but many signs point to future labor malfeasance. Will passengers be aware that sub-par pay and minimal work rules could have pilots working long hours with minimal time off? Doubtful. Will they care?

As a pilot considering an airline career, should you be worried? For now, it’s too early to tell. “Pilots looking forward to a professional career might see the chance to fly new Norwegian Boeing 737 and 787 jets as a dream come true,” said Mitchell. “But the devil is in the details and soon enough, enthusiasm will give way to angst and frustration as 10 days off per month isn’t time to recover from flying all night globally to different time zones for poor pay and overbearing flight managers.”

ALPA’s fingering of the decimated maritime industry is ominous, as the example is very similar and its effects damaging. ALPA is already pleading with the Trump administration to intervene, but ALPA’s longstanding support of Democratic nominees may politicize that fight.

For now, U.S. airlines are enjoying a time of solid profit and stability not seen in years, and flying is still a great career to pursue for many years to come. However, the recent DOT decision could spur many other low-cost carriers to proliferate in the coming decades. If that occurs, ALPA’s doomsday predictions could become reality. Stay tuned.

Peter A. Bedell

Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.

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