For almost two decades, the Norwegian embassy has dolled up a giant Christmas tree at Washington DC's Union Station every December in what the Scandinavian country hails as a symbol of friendship between Norway and the USA.

This year, the embassy chose to decorate the tree with polar bears in what Norway says is its way of "bringing a piece of the Arctic to Washington DC". Ironically, the reception that has greeted Norwegian's plans to begin long-haul flights to the USA from a new Irish subsidiary has been far from warm.

Ireland-based Norwegian Air International (NAI) submitted an application to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) on 2 December 2013 for a foreign air carrier permit and exemption authority to begin US flights, in what had appeared to be a routine procedure for foreign airlines seeking to launch service to the USA.

But NAI's application has turned out to be anything but routine. More than a year later, a DOT decision is nowhere in sight. The agency rejected NAI's application for exemption authority in September, and said NAI's foreign air carrier permit application is still pending.

NAI's opponents in the USA - mostly the large US passenger airlines and labour unions - have lobbied loudly and strongly for the DOT to reject NAI's application. The anti-NAI campaign has not been restricted to just the filing of opposing comments to NAI's application, it has also made its presence felt in an official website, advertisements splashed on Washington DC city buses and metro stations, and in this day and age - a hashtag on social media.

The DOT has so far been silent on when it would take a final decision on the airline, with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx reiterating several times in official letters that he could not comment to lawmakers on NAI's case since the airline's application is still pending before the DOT.

The delay in processing NAI's application has both the airline and European Commission crying foul. Norwegian chief executive Bjørn Kjos said in November that the lag is "crazy". "We hope they will get to their senses and give us their approval... Normally, it will take 30 days.”

In the highest level meetings to date on the issue, EU and US officials met in Washington DC on 25 November to discuss the case in the framework of the US-EU open skies agreement. The meeting, however, seemed to have accomplished little, with the EC accusing the US government afterwards of breaching the bilateral air transport agreement by dragging its feet on NAI's application.

Both sides are set to meet again next month, after the EC meets its member states to discuss the next steps to take.

In the meantime, the battle between NAI and its critics in Washington DC continues, played out in press statements, intense lobbying of Congress and heated industry panels in the US capital.

The row between the two sides has spilled over into the US government's spending bill, unveiled late yesterday by the US Congress. The bill, which will fund the federal government through the end of September 2015, contains language that will directly impact NAI's case before the DOT.

Earlier this year, NAI's opponents trumpeted an amendment to the proposed budget that will forbid the US government from approving a new foreign air carrier permit if such approval contravenes a specific article of the US-EU-Iceland-Norway air transport agreement.

That article, known as article 17 bis, had provided for labour standards in the agreement: "The opportunities created by the agreement are not intended to undermine labour standards or the labour-related rights and principles contained in the parties' respective laws."

NAI's critics have repeatedly cited article 17 bis in its opposition to Norwegian, which they say chose to base NAI in Ireland to circumvent Norway's stricter labour laws. NAI's opponents also say the airline is seeking to hire Thailand-based pilots through a Singapore employment company to keep costs low, and accused the airline of exploiting pilots.

The airline has repeatedly denied the charges, and has fought back with their own lobbying efforts. Today, NAI pointed to new language introduced in the US government spending bill that Norwegian believes will authorise Foxx to approve NAI's application: "Nothing in this section shall prohibit, restrict or otherwise preclude the Secretary of Transportation from granting a foreign air carrier permit or an exemption to such an air carrier where such authorisation is consistent with the US-EU-Iceland-Norway Air Transport Agreement and United States law."

NAI says: "This provision, once enacted, will eliminate once and for all any perceived barriers constraining DOT from rendering a final, immediate decision on NAI’s application."

But the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) does not agree. The union points to the provision that will prevent the DOT from approving any foreign air carrier permit if it is found to contravene article 17 bis, calling it a "victory" in the process of rejecting NAI's application.

ALPA president Lee Moak, who has been notably vocal in opposing NAI, says today: "Despite NAI's aggressive opposition to this language and lobbying and spin campaign in DC, the inclusion of section 415 is another clear signal that Congress is committed to ensuring US airlines and their employees do business on a level playing field and the flag of convenience business model for aviation isn't to be imported to the United States."

Amidst the war of words and public relations campaigns, some outsiders have been calling for rationality. Among them is FedEx, which has publicly supported NAI's application. At a Washington DC industry panel hosted by ALPA yesterday, FedEx's vice-president for regulatory and industry affairs Steven Taylor warned that a rejection of NAI's application could result in consequences for the wider airline industry.

"If we begin to put a hurdle for EU carriers to come to the US, then clearly we will put a hurdle for Middle Eastern carriers coming to the US," he said, warning of retaliatory measures from the EU. "There's no reason for them [the EU] to stand back and do nothing."

As 2014 draws to a close, the airline industry is nowhere close to finding out what NAI's fate will be. Asked to speculate on what could happen, Taylor said yesterday that the DOT could never make a decision. "We’ll just sit here and slowly wither away as the years go by," he said wryly.

But if the year was any indication, NAI's opponents are not prepared to go down without a fight. ALPA's Moak said in May that the union plans to pursue a "legislative fix" if NAI wins approval from the DOT, and Moak alluded to this again yesterday at the panel.

"Sometimes you have to lose to win in Washington... Just stand by," he said.

Source: Cirium Dashboard