White House

Airline unions wary of more competition hope for an ally in Donald Trump

A Southwest Airlines 737 departs from Love Field in Dallas, Sept. 23, 2016. Southwest pilots will protest at the White House to convince Donald Trump to thwart Norwegian Air’s expansion in the United States.
A Southwest Airlines 737 departs from Love Field in Dallas, Sept. 23, 2016. Southwest pilots will protest at the White House to convince Donald Trump to thwart Norwegian Air’s expansion in the United States. Star-Telegram

A slew of labor unions representing some of America’s largest airlines, including North Texas-based Southwest and American, plan to picket the White House in hopes that a populist-oriented President Donald Trump will take their side in a dispute with a European rival.

The union for Southwest Airlines pilots will hold a rally on Tuesday in hopes of preventing Norwegian Air’s expansion in the United States. The unions argue Norwegian Air’s use of an Irish subsidiary will allow the company to skirt labor and safety regulations, and that Norwegian Air will hire cheaper Asian flight crews instead of Americans.

“Norwegian’s permit will go into full force on the 29th of January, so it’s easier to stop something before it starts,” said Chip Hancock, governmental affairs chairman with the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association. “We’re trying every avenue we can to raise the president’s awareness.”

But Norwegian Air’s planned expansion will provide additional competition in the transatlantic flight market, and could lead to lower prices for consumers seeking European travel. Norwegian Air has said that the expansion will result in 500 new jobs between New York and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, by the end of 2017.

“There is no validity whatsoever to our opponents’ claims that Norwegian’s expansion will lead to fewer American jobs as the real facts show the complete opposite,” Norwegian Air director of communications Anders Lindström said in a statement. “We have more U.S.-based cabin crew than any foreign airline, and we continue to create more American jobs than any foreign airline. This year alone, we will be the only foreign airline to recruit American pilots as we will open up several new pilot and cabin crew bases in the United States.”

The Obama administration approved Norwegian Air’s expansion in December, granting permission for the low-cost carrier to serve new transcontinental routes such as from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona, Spain.

But the opposition to the decision in Congress was bipartisan, as 175 members from both parties sponsored a bill last April condemning the decision, which was in the works for months.

The bill’s co-sponsors included Fort Worth, Texas-area Democrats Rep. Marc Veasey and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, whose district includes Southwest’s headquarters, and conservative Republicans like Rep. Roger Williams.

“I stand with the pilots and the flight attendants,” Veasey said in an interview with McClatchy. “They’re absolutely right, it would be a way to undercut safety, it would be a way to undercut wages and it would make workers here in the U.S. less competitive.”

The bill, sponsored by Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, never made it out of committee despite the bipartisan support.

Trump promised that adding American jobs would be a big part of his agenda as president, and he pushed Carrier Air Conditioners to keep jobs in Indiana after his election.

“We will bring back our jobs,” Trump said in his inaugural speech. “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.”

For the unions, Trump’s presidency gives a glimmer of hope that certain trade deals they deem bad for American workers will be overturned. On Monday, Trump signed an executive order withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

Norwegian Air is “already flying here under Norwegian labor laws, so we welcome competition,” Hancock said. “Competition allowed Southwest to come in and outperform, but the idea of jumping ship from your home country to find the most lax labor laws and social laws on the planet” is bad for American jobs.

Hancock said that every long-haul flight that is canceled by an American airline “impacts 800 jobs directly or indirectly.”

Southwest employs nearly 10,000 people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, making it the 15th largest employer in North Texas.

American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, employs around 27,000 people in North Texas. Unions representing the airline won’t officially be a part of Tuesday’s rally, but Hancock said he anticipates pilots from American showing up.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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