Airline CEOs to meet with Trump as pilots fight Norwegian Air deal

In advance of a meeting between President Trump and airline CEOs on Thursday, pilots and others are weighing in on their priorities for the new administration.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian is expected to be among those at the meeting, according to the chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association union at Delta.

At a press briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president “is going to want to talk about economic growth and creation, how he’s enacting orders to make sure the country is safe.”

Bastian said last month he was excited about the potential for increased investment in airport infrastructure under President Trump's administration. He also said he was "excited about the opportunity" to present Delta's case on competition with Middle East carriers and on enforcing trade deals, and discuss tax benefits and regulatory changes.

But in advance of the meeting with Trump, a different issue pushed by airline unions has gained attention, surrounding international competition.

The pilots union on Wednesday pushed for the Trump administration to “roll back the Obama administration’s misguided deal to grant Norwegian Air International an unfair advantage and outsource American jobs,” said Tim Canoll, an Atlanta-based Delta pilot and president of the international union.

At issue is an expansion of flights to the United States by low-cost carrier Norwegian Air, one of the world's fastest-growing airlines, which in December gained U.S. approval for a permit for an Irish subsidiary to operate flights to the United States. That has raised the ire of airline labor unions who say the Irish subsidiary allows Norwegian Air to avoid Norway's employment laws and use flight crews hired in other countries at lower pay.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last year acknowledged the labor-related concerns, but said "the provision in the U.S.-EU Agreement that addresses labor does not afford a basis for rejecting an applicant that is otherwise qualified to receive a permit."

In response to a question about the Norwegian Air issue, Spicer said Wednesday that “my understanding, if I’m correct, that there is a deal in which they’re having 50 percent of the crews and the pilots are American-based. They’re flying Boeing planes. There is a huge economic interest that America has in that deal right now.”

Norwegian said Wednesday it is pleased with Spicer’s “correct understanding,” and said it has 500 U.S.-based flight attendants, is recruiting American pilots, has flight attendant bases in New York and Florida and is setting up more U.S. pilot and flight attendant bases.

Boeing last year issued a statement directed at workers at its South Carolina plant saying that union opposition to the Norwegian Air approval could cost Boeing airplane orders and “could translate into undermining Boeing aerospace jobs.”

Todd Insler, who leads the pilots union at United Airlines, called the argument about Boeing jobs a “false narrative,” noting that Norwegian Air already flew Boeing aircraft before creation of the international subsidiary.

The Norwegian Air issue has been brewing for years. 

Bill Bartels, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association unit at Delta, on Wednesday said the Norwegian Air approval “will result in the loss of American jobs and a race to the bottom.”

The pilots union was not invited to the meeting between airline CEOs and Trump.

Delta has said it agrees with the pilots that Norwegian Air is taking advantage of loopholes. "We share their concerns about the way Norwegian has structured its trans-Atlantic business," said Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter.

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