White House

Airline pilots want Donald Trump’s help to stop European competition

Southwest Airlines pilot Mike Panebianco rallies outside the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, to urge President Donald Trump to overturn an agreement that gives Norwegian Air additional U.S. routes. Airline unions say the Norwegian deal will lead to fewer American jobs.
Southwest Airlines pilot Mike Panebianco rallies outside the White House on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, to urge President Donald Trump to overturn an agreement that gives Norwegian Air additional U.S. routes. Airline unions say the Norwegian deal will lead to fewer American jobs. McClatchy

Mike Panebianco is hoping for another Carrier deal, but he’ll settle for President Donald Trump’s signature instead of a made-for-TV spectacle.

Panebianco, a Dallas resident who’s a pilot for Southwest Airlines, was one of 130 pilots and airline employees lined up outside the White House on Tuesday to ask for Trump’s help in a long-running dispute with a European rival that they say will cost American jobs.

In December, the Obama administration granted Norwegian Air additional U.S. routes, giving consumers another low-cost option for trans-Atlantic travel. But the Scandinavian airline’s new routes will be licensed through an Irish subsidiary, a move the pilots say will lead to fewer safety regulations and cheap foreign labor.

“It’s not a red or blue issue,” said Panebianco, 46, who is the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association. “It’s an issue that can be settled with Trump’s signature and an opportunity to support more American jobs.”

Tuesday’s rally wasn’t the first time various airlines have mobilized to oppose Norwegian Air’s expansion. But Trump’s election combined with a Jan. 29 deadline for the deal to go into effect spurred the pilots from Dallas to act.

Panebianco, a self-described “issues voter” who declined to say whether he’d voted for Trump, said the new president’s inaugural address and executive order withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations signaled his commitment to American workers.

Norwegian Air argues it is creating American jobs through new routes and that more competition is good for consumers seeking low-cost flights.

“Norwegian had some 500 U.S.-based crew members by the end of 2016, and all U.S.-based pilots and crew are hired under local laws and regulations with competitive packages,” Norwegian Air director of communications Anders Lindstrom said in a statement. “In short, no other foreign airline invests more in the American economy or creates more American jobs than Norwegian. Sadly, their (unions’) members believe their leaders’ blatant lies, as do some politicians.”

Those politicians include 175 members of Congress from both parties who co-sponsored a bill last year that would negate the Obama administration’s decision to give Norwegian Air the permits. Supporters of the bill, which never made it out of committee, include Fort Worth, Texas-area Democrats Rep. Marc Veasey and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, whose district includes Southwest’s headquarters, and conservative Texas Republicans like Rep. Roger Williams of Austin.

“My first responsibility is to represent District 30, and I might not be as fair to others as possible in all cases,” Johnson said, acknowledging that a large employer in her district affected her decision-making. “I respect labor standards, and they’re not always upheld out of the country.”

Veasey also highlighted labor and safety standards as the reason behind his opposition to the deal.

“I stand with the pilots and the fight attendants,” Veasey said. “It would be a way to undercut safety. It would be a way to undercut wages and make workers here in the U.S. less competitive. In this disagreement they (the Trump administration) can step in and show this isn’t just a bunch of talk.”

Williams offered a practical reason for his opposition: He argued there is a finite number of gates at busy airports like Dallas/Fort Worth International and Love Field, where Southwest is based, and if Norwegian Air uses more gates then American airlines have less business.

“I get it. You’re talking about a guy who talks about competition all the time,” Williams said, referring to himself. “But goodness gracious . . . is there any more competition than what we’ve got going on between American and United and Delta? They’re competing against each other all the time.”

Chip Hancock, a Southwest pilot who’s government affairs chairman for the union, said the pilots had been in contact with members of the Trump transition team but that most of their lobbying efforts had been focused on Congress.

The Southwest pilots’ association gave $104,000 in campaign contributions to members of Congress last year, with 37 percent of that going to Democrats and 63 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in U.S. politics. Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, who sponsored the bill opposing the deal in Congress, received $6,000 from the union.

“I thought Ray and Foxx did pretty well, but they were constantly undercut or dictated to by the White House,” DeFazio said in December, speaking of former transportation secretaries Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx. “But the one thing which I don’t know who is responsible for, which is the last most disastrous thing done by this administration, is to start a race to the bottom in aviation by approving a virtual airline – NAI – to provide service to the United States using contract crews from Asia.”

Foxx, who recently left his post after Obama’s tenure ended, expressed reservations on the deal approved by his boss.

“We occasionally have to make tough decisions, sometimes tough decisions even I struggle with,” Foxx said in an interview with McClatchy last week. “That’s a situation that’s now being legally contested by the Air Line Pilots Association, so I probably have to be careful what I say about it other than there’s a reason why that decision took such a long time. That’s because I was wrestling with issues on both sides of it.”

Trump’s potential incoming transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, declined to offer a position on the issue during Senate hearings earlier this month.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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, making it the second-largest employer in the area. Unions representing American Airlines employees also oppose the deal but were not present on Tuesday.

Johnson, who has been in Congress since 1993, said she had no idea how Trump would react to pressure from labor organizations, who support Trump’s opposition of trade deals but traditionally back Democrats.

“I don’t know what’s going on his mind,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I knew Clinton, Bush and Obama a whole lot better than I know Trump. I have to observe him a little longer and build some kind of open communication.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story provided the incorrect year for the bill intended to block the Norwegian Air decision. The bill was drafted and brought to committee in 2016.

William Douglas contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty