Should discount carrier Norwegian Air fly to the U.S.? Here’s what passengers think.


Affordable. Comfortable. On time.

Those are just some of the words Norwegian Air passengers are using to describe the discount airline, which is patiently waiting for a foreign air carrier permit from the U.S. government for its Irish subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI). Many customers rave about its low fares, new planes and friendly service.

But that’s not how some U.S. airlines describe Norwegian Air. Critics, including labor unions and competitors, say the airline flouts labor laws, threatens American jobs and should be banned from flying in the United States.

Now, after two years in a holding pattern and extensive vetting by regulators, the Department of Transportation is on the verge of granting Norwegian Air the permission it requested. Last month, the DOT issued a “show cause” order for its Irish subsidiary, soliciting public comments. Observers believe the airline is about to get the all-clear from authorities, which will allow Norwegian Air to expand worldwide.

How will that affect you? It depends on who you are. Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of 32 member unions representing transportation workers, predicts that NAI’s approval “will destroy fair competition and extinguish middle-class airline jobs here and in Europe.” In other words, if you or a loved one works in the transportation business, you might feel this a little.

Some members of Congress agree. Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.), Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) and Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.) quickly introduced a bill that they say would prevent the DOT from permitting a foreign air carrier to operate between European countries and the United States unless the carrier complies with basic, fair U.S. or European Union labor standards — a law that would effectively throttle Norwegian Air’s expansion.

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The bill is unlikely to pass.

“Our opponents have created a wildly inaccurate fear-mongering situation,” says Réal Hamilton-Romeo, a Norwegian Air spokeswoman. Green-lighting Norwegian Air, she says, would help create more American cabin-crew jobs working for Norwegian Air; help sustain and support more than 90,000 American jobs through an $18.5 billion order with Boeing; bring more tourists to the United States; and add direct air service to Europe for American air travelers.

“Protests against Norwegian Air are nothing but special interests in the U.S. airline industry worried about international competition,” agrees Jonathan Galaviz, an airline analyst with Global Market Advisors, a travel industry consulting firm. What’s more, he notes, denying Norwegian Air’s request would affect the U.S. tourism industry in other ways, hurting “thousands of American hotel workers and taxi drivers that rely on new inbound airline traffic from abroad.”

Northeastern University economist Harlan Platt says the debate reminds him of taxis fighting the inevitable spread of Uber. But the new, better way of running an airline — Norwegian Air is finding ways to reduce costs by breaking the old model of basing an airline in one country, employing people there and hiring its crew there — will ultimately win, to the benefit of passengers.

“Denying Norwegian Air’s application is tantamount to saying that American consumers should subsidize United Airlines and its unions,” he says. “While it is true that many of these airlines went through bankruptcy a decade ago, since then, they have consolidated the industry and destroyed competition. They are now all highly profitable and greedier than Midas.”

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Maybe the real question is: What do you give up when you fly on Norwegian Air? Not much, passengers say.

Norwegian Air follows the “a la carte” pricing model popularized by the airline industry about a decade ago, selling you a seat but asking you to pay for anything extra. That includes imposing fees for checked luggage, drinks, in-flight meals, phone reservations, seat assignments, snacks and ticket changes.

Even so, Annalisa Fernandez, an author based in Riverside, Conn., says Norwegian Air is surprisingly affordable. “We flew Norwegian Air to Spain last summer to take the kids to summer camp and plan to do it again this year,” she says. Airfare for a family of five set the family back $4,000, $2,000 less than she would have paid on a conventional airline. Fernandez did her research before choosing the flight. “I trust the Norwegians to not cut corners on safety,” she adds.

Transatlantic airfares rise significantly during the summer, a time of peak demand. With only a handful of airlines competing on many popular routes, thanks to government-approved airline alliances that are granted antitrust immunity, you don’t often hear passengers talking about affordable tickets.

Here’s another word you rarely hear used to describe a flight: comfortable.

Lloyd Wheeler, who runs a production company in Tallahassee, flew from Orlando to Copenhagen last month on Norwegian Air and described it as a “decent” experience. “Norwegian’s layout in economy is more comfortable than I have experienced in many other airlines,” he says. That’s a sharp contrast to the U.S.-based carriers, who offer humane legroom and space only to their elites, to those willing to pay sky-high fares to sit in business class or to those who slavishly collect frequent-flier miles. Adds Wheeler, “We look forward to flying on Norwegian Air again and hope to use their service in other markets.”

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Jonathan Weber, who owns a Web design firm in Stroudsburg, Pa., paid $256 to fly on Norwegian Air from New York to Oslo. He was impressed by the new aircraft and positive work ethic.

“They depart and arrive on time, and they have a professional and courteous crew,” he says, adding: “I’d fly them for a domestic route over the normal American alternatives any day.”

Actually, Norwegian Air isn’t applying to fly domestic routes — under an antiquated U.S. law, foreign carriers are not allowed to do that — but Weber’s comments underscore the level of unhappiness American air travelers feel with their own carriers. There’s a strong sense among passengers that the government shouldn’t prop up a system that doesn’t serve them well.

Time and again, the experts and air travelers I spoke with for this article mentioned the broken system: Airlines no longer compete, their fares are too high and their service levels are too low. And time and again, they expressed the hope that an airline like Norwegian Air can change the system by offering a better way to fly and disrupting an inefficient model.

Then again, what if the critics are right? What if Norwegian Air’s promises to offer low fares, better service and create American jobs turn out to be empty? What if Norwegian Air’s expansion decimates a vital American industry, taking with it the livelihood of thousands of taxpayers?

We’re about to find out.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Frank Clarke

    If Norwegian Air’s promises are empty, there will be another carrier waiting to scoop up their discarded pax — unless Congress intervenes to prevent that.

  • KennyG

    The more the federal government stays out of the way, and allows the free market system to work efficiently, the better it will be for the majority of Americans. That being said, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of elected officials in Washington, DC that give a d+mn about anything except getting contributions from lobbyists/special interest groups and being re-elected.

  • AJPeabody

    Suggested edit: Replace “fingers” with “thumbs,”

  • Donald Filiault

    My Spouse and I had the opportunity to fly Norwegian Air from Gatwick to Orlando, nonstop on April 26th. We were very pleased with the airline. Planes were modern and clean, check-in was easy, and the personnel were helpful, but beyond that, the prices were much lower, even though we booked at the last minute. Saying that they would “destroy competition” is a joke. There is little competition, because most of the American Airlines mimic each other when anyone thinks of a way to increase it’s profits at the expense of the customer. When we book our next foreign travel, we’ll look at Norwegian first.

  • Steve Rabin

    It’s the US legacy airlines spearheading this fight, and frankly they don’t have a leg to stand on. They don’t want the competition (and NAI flies new 787 aircraft and provides decent service for lower fares). They want to control the marketplace with their European alliance-mates so they can jack fares whenever they want. As stated above, NAI will hire American cabin crews. And this is bad?

    A bunch of special interests who don’t want competition. And I’m guessing that some of the representatives who introduced the bill have received pressure from these special interests–is it a coincidence that two of the reps–one from NJ and the other from GA–hail from states where two of the legacy airlines have substantial operations (United and Delta, respectively)? I think not.

  • Rebecca

    One of the main reasons I moved out of Chicago (and the state of Illinois) is because the state, county and city are broke and are taxing the citizens to the hilt, with rates going up again and again. Literally the highest tax rates in the country. One of the main reasons for this is the unreasonable salary, benefit and pension demands of the state employee unions. At one time, unfair and unsafe labor practices made unions necessary. Then, as time went on, they got greedier and greedier. Now, it is at the point that many unions make demands that are completely out of line with what is fair and just compensation and hr policy.

    The airlines are hitching their argument onto the same unions that they are willing to fight in many other circumstances. (Please note that I AM excluding specifically pilots in this lump; theirs is one of the few unions I don’t find unreasonable. They are definitely a mostly reasonable union.) The airlines don’t want the competition so they can rake in record profits. The government is complicit in allowing them to have a monopoly/oligopoly. The years of delays it is taking Norwegian to fly these routes is totally unreasonable.

  • Rebecca

    ACE – I absolutely love the artwork for this one. I always enjoy them, and this one I had to let you know how awesome it is!!!!!!!

  • Tom McShane

    The Government
    Winning WWII
    The Interstate Highway System
    The Centers for Disease Control
    The National Institutes of Health
    Social Security
    Medicare
    The EPA
    National Parks
    The Internet
    Landgrant Universities

    Private Enterprise
    The Edsel, The Exploding Pinto The Vega
    Airline Customer Care
    Burning the Cuyahoga
    DDT
    Comcast
    Corinthian Colleges
    Herbalife
    Telemarketing
    Thalidomide
    Lehman Brothers

    I could go on

  • Alan Gore

    Since Nirwegian is operating as just another foreign carrier, not carrying pax between points in the US in violation of cabotage, what basis do the domestic carriers have for keeping it out?

  • Peter Varhol

    There isn’t enough information here to have an honest judgment one way or the other. But I continue to be puzzled at the great levels we go to in order to book the lowest possible airfare. We don’t buy the least expensive cars, or clothes, or TVs, or phone plans. We don’t eat at the cheapest restaurants. I realize that the analogies may not be perfect, but many people seem to be far more price sensitive on airfares than in any other aspect of their lives. I can think of two possible reasons, but I don’t believe either of them.

    1. We have better pricing information on airfares than other purchases. That’s not obviously true when compared to other goods and services, and certainly a la carte pricing makes that a crapshoot.

    2. Airlines have not well differentiated their product when compared to the competition. That may be true, but I cannot believe that clothing, TV, or phone providers have done so either. In any case, we have information on number of complaints, lost baggage, late arrivals, etc. to form our own judgment on the quality of airline products.

    I am truly puzzled.

  • Peter Varhol

    Alan, I will offer a guess that airlines are worried about the profitable transatlantic routes. I do wonder if Norweigian Air will be able to obtain hard-to-get slots at major US airports, or if they will find secondary airports with customs and immigration facilities.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I think Peter is onto something interesting. The airlines have created a situation where pricing is the only real area of distinction. There is no difference on safety, and only Southwest (which I prefer) has any advantages on rebooking, etc. Even for gasoline, where the prices are prominently posted, I know lots of people who will prefer “name brand” gas over a no name company if the difference is 1-2% or so. While business class airlines have failed, I wonder if an “anti-Spirit” would have a chance?

  • KennyG

    Please do go on. But first, reread my post. Never said there was NO place for the Federal government, just that the country would be better off if they stayed out of the way of the free markets, which usually will self-correct if left to their own devices. Not sure what the free market system has to do with things like WW2, Thalidomide,etc etc. And actually, some of your examples actually make my point about govt getting in the middle, Lehman Bros, and the EPA for example. Lehman Bros failed due to govt being in the business of picking winners and losers. Ever hear of the Community Reinvestment Act? Ever think about why credit was so easy to come by that once liquidity dried up all these banks/brokerages failed [or had to be propped up with your and my tax dollars]? Comcast, now there’s something relevant to my post. You should try Venezuela if government intervention is so great.

  • Rebecca

    I actually know a person that will drive 5 miles out of the way, each way, to get gas $.02 cheaper a gallon. People are goofy about gas prices.

    And I really really hope anti-Spirit would have a chance. I have complained here before about consumers being price sensitive to the point of ridiculous when it comes to airfare. I agree that Peter is onto something here. I’m with you about Southwest too. I fly them almost exclusively.

  • Éamon deValera

    When have unions cared about anyone but their leadership?

  • MF

    Given the disgust I experience with the current air carrier prices & service here in the US, I’m willing to ‘risk’ it. As with all laws, they are subject to amendment or repeal, if they don’t quite work out. All we risk is the bad, overpriced service. All we could gain is superior service at a reduced price. Don’t we believe in competition here in this country??? Apparently not, if you believe the protectionism argument. I think we believe in competition when the PR & lobbying firms get paid to say yea or nay, and NAL just hasn’t paid as much as our domestic carriers have with their excess profits to sway public & legislative opinion. The carriers don’t care about the ‘little people’ like flight attendants anyway, if they cut back 10% of their flights, they would RIF the employees in 2 snaps, gotta pay the shareholders all they can…

  • Maxwell Smart

    Norwegian are far better than ANY U.S. carrier, but that wouldn’t be hard.

  • Mel65

    I had to laugh. I had BOTH a Pinto and a Vega when I was a teen … also, a Gremlin. If there was a crappy car made, I drove it!

  • Tom McShane

    I had a Vega when I met my wife. She had a Pinto at that time. I will see your Gremlin with a VW Rabbit and and raise you an Opel Kadett and a Renault LeCar.

  • Lindabator

    they cannot add more routes, so why should foreign carriers – they do NOT return the favor over there.

  • Peter

    A friend flew from Oakland to Spain on Norwegian and got a great fare (under $600 rt) and good service. What’s the problem?

  • Peter

    How about

    Private enterprise:

    – every other car besides the Edsel, including the Tesla
    – Virgin (Atlantic and America), JetBlue, Singapore Air, Cathay Pacific, etc. and most every non-military airplane ever designed and built
    – water purification systems, de-salinization technology, anti-oil spill technology, bottled water from around the world
    – the lack of DDT use in the developing world has cost millions of lives due to malaria and other diseases (look it up). Zika, dengue, west Nile anyone?
    – high speed internet, ubiquitous wifi, 500 cable channels, satellite tv (at home and on planes), instant global communications, VOIP, Skype, FaceTime, need I go on? How about social media, smart phones and apps, for improving peoples’ lives?
    – Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, none of these were started by the government, last I checked.
    – wide availability of low cost dietary supplements, nuitritionally enhanced foods, organic foods, Whole Foods and the best/safest food supply in the world.
    – cures or treatments for many previously fatal diseases, 25% increase in lifespan over past 40 years, massive increase in quality of life for the elderly.
    – greatest rate of hone ownership, car ownership, college matriculation, all due to the broad and fair availability of credit, provided by US financial institutions. Not to mention stock market investment by consumer households as a form of wealth creation.

    Undoubtedly the government is a valuable and useful thing. And there have been excesses due to capitalism (just as there have been in government). But to deny that our economic system has helped us to the greatest wealth, reduction of poverty and disease, the most opportunity, and the best and longest quality of life isn’t just myopic, but is absurd.

  • Hanope

    I’m confused. The article cites to a couple of people flying Norwegian Air from a US port to a European port. So what is it that NA is currently not doing that it is applying to do?

  • Peter

    As I think about companies and industries that provide the worst service, high cost, and greatst number of complaints, they are most often businesses that rely upon government mandated monopolies or oligopolies (cable, telecomm, airlines, banks) or highly unionized, or both.

  • SierraRose 49

    Let’s not forget the AMC Pacer! Just think of that scene of John Denver opening his Pacer’s car door in the movie “Oh God!”

  • Tom McShane

    Yep who could disagree with the last paragraph? I just get tired of gov’t is the enemy idea. I mean there are people arming themselves to fight the federal government. And there are more peaceful folks who thing everything the government touches turns to dreck.

    Apropos of nothing much, to bring this back a bit on topic, did you know that the scourge of hoteliers–bedbugs–are pretty much completely resistant to DDT?

  • KanExplore

    Excellent discussion of the issues. I’m flying Norwegian for the first time out of the US in June, and looking forward to it, having found it a pleasant experience within Europe before. Competition is a good thing, and while it’s understandable that the existing carriers fight it, let’s hope they don’t prevail.

  • KanExplore

    To the established carriers that IS the problem. Their highly profitable overpriced transatlantic oligopoly is at risk.

  • KanExplore

    The distinctions haven’t been made very clear. There’s Norwegian Air and there’s Norwegian Air International, which is a subsidiary organized in Ireland. The former already has several routes to the U.S., while the latter is the entity now seeking to establish service. The article tends to use the terms interchangeably.

  • Mel65

    My Dad had a Renault at one time, but I took my driving test in a Ford Country Squire station wagon with 2 different colored doors and one window that didn’t raise, so it had cardboard and duct tape on it. I think I win! :)

  • Tom McShane

    Lotta beloved heaps. They may have been lemons, but the were OUR lemons.

  • Mark

    The DOT should give them approval to fly to the US. Anti-trust regulators have allowed too many airline mergers over the yeas and the flying public is left with fewer choices and true free market competition in the airline industry has all but disappeared. Bring’em on.

  • just me

    Efficiency is not the goal by itself. The government MUST protect the people not efficiency. Efficiency has been proven time and again the enemy of what is long term good for economy, people, customers and ultimately profits. Your conecept about efficiency is totaly wrong and proven so. Educate yourself already! The “free market” does not exist and never existed and never should exist. Stop ignoring facts.

  • KennyG

    It seems your only argument is that YOU are the only one that has the FACTS, and I am a poor uneducated slob. You are entitled to your own opinion, but that does not make your opinion fact. Please feel free to provide me with some factual data to support your argument instead of simply telling me it has been proven and I need to educate myself. That is if you have time being up there on your holier than thou, elitist throne. Please include the wonderful job our gov’t has done supporting companies like SOlyndra, GM, ethanol. Or in the alternative, feel free to just leave the states and head to Venezuela where government intervention is obviously much more to your liking.

  • Charles Owen

    “greatest rate of home ownership” That would be Romania. The US is #39. “college matriculation” That would be Russia. The US is #5. Life expectancy? #34. Quality of life for elderly? #8, but imagine it without the socialist programs social security and medicare for a moment. Whole Foods? Try $6 “asparagus water”.

    Don’t quote the conservative talking points without doing some basic research. The US is rapidly falling way behind in many areas. We have been most successful when there was a good balance between government regulation/involvement and private enterprise. That balance has been destroyed by a drive to shrink government and deregulate and we are falling fast in education, health care, and many other areas. Competition works. but companies don’t want competition, they want monopolies, which do not work.

  • Charles Owen

    You seem to assume there is no point between a completely “free” marketplace and a dictatorship such as Venezuela. It is, in fact, a continuum and we have swung too far to the right. You want facts? I really wish you did want facts! The problem is that the conservative media has created their own “facts” and if you look up actual facts they disagree, so you discount them as “liberal bias”. In fact, the US is way behind in many areas and falling fast.

    Yes, Solyndra was a failure. But, even with that loss, the government loan program did not cost the taxpayers anything! It has now generated a profit (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-doe-loans-idUSKCN0IX0A120141113). GM? How exactly is this a failure on the government’s part? Rather than destroying the entire domestic automotive industry, which was the very real alternative, the total final cost to taxpayers was less than $10B and saved 1.2 million jobs and $35B in tax revenue. Ethanol? I personally don’t agree with ethanol subsidies, but government support has certainly helped that industry.

    You want an experiment in free market? Try for-profit college on for size. 47% of ALL students who default on college loans attended for-profit colleges! They pay CEO’s an average of $7.3M and spent more on profit and marketing than on instruction. The free market is not always the best choice.

  • Charles Owen

    I don’t really think this is true. If all people cared about was price, wouldn’t Spirit by better than a 2.6% market share (compared to 17% for Delta)? We just finished a trip on Delta. I spent a huge amount of time comparison shopping. I found just the right combination of days that made the airfare as cheap as possible. But there were a lot more factors than just the price. We could have made that trip for about $200 less if we flew Spirit including the fees. But, Delta allowed us to fly out of a more convenient airport, avoid a bus ride to the airport, and we have the credit card so we got free bags and priority seating. And, we avoided dealing with Spirit! That alone was worth something in an of itself. The whole trip cost about 5% more, so I certainly did not pick entirely based on price.

  • KennyG

    As soon as you turned this into a left vs. right issue, and once again decided to tell me it is my lack of ability to see your “facts” this time because I simply write off anything I dont agree with as “liberal bias”, the point in having any continuing discussion is moot.

  • Peter

    You’re correct, any reasonable review of history reveals that socialism and communism are far superior forms of organizing a society. The Government gives us all our rights and should assign us our resources.

    Certainly Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, China (pre-“reform”) and Eastern Europe (prior to USSR collapse) were all far superior systems that maximized freedom and quality of life. I am chastized. I will move to Russia or Romania immediately.

    The Feds have spent Billions over 30 years and we have lower scores. Billions more fighting poverty and generatins in more poverty. An oligopoly in health care was created with results you mention.

    We can just agree to disagree.

  • Charles Owen

    Facts are facts. There’s no bias to facts. Sadly, there IS an entire industry devoted to calling things facts that are not, in fact, “facts”. I’m perfectly willing to debate topics of limits and function of government with anyone, but you should provide real facts that support your arguments. I did.

    And I was not the one who started this conversation with “feel free to just leave the states and head to Venezuela where government intervention is obviously much more to your liking.”

  • Charles Owen

    Did I say communism is superior? Did anyone? The role of government is a continuum. Extremes fail dismally. The extreme of communism was and has been a failure. Everyone acknowledges that. But, the extreme of little or no government has also been proven a failure. Witness the poverty rate among the elderly prior to social security and medicare. We have swung too far to the right and need to adjust. Maybe that includes more airline regulation than we currently have. Maybe that means single-payer would work far better than the stupid system we currently have. But, if your only reply to a question about government is to assume anyone who does not agree with your view of the role of government is a communist, you will never get anywhere. You’ll just “agree to disagree”. And, this “we’re the greatest country in the world” idea avoid looking at the hard truths.

    If you look carefully, most of us are taking a more nuanced view of things. Chris obviously supports increased regulation on the airline industry, yet this article really seems to support eliminating some regulations about international participation in the market. He calls the laws “antiquated”. If you approach every problem with that “the government is the problem” attitude you’ll never solve anything.

  • Peter

    First, I never said the US had the highest rates of home ownership or college matriculation in the world. We have the highest rates in our history.

    Second, the US has the second highest percentage of college graduates in the world with 52%. Canada is number one with 56%.

    Third, I brought up Communism because you brought up Romania and Russia. Communism is just an extreme form of Socialism. Government control of most economic activity. Very limited private ownership of property. Central control and planning.

    Fourth, if you think favoring capitalism over socialism are just conservative talking points, you are mistaken. Capitalism, warts and all, has raised more from poverty, cured more illnesses, improved the quality of life for more people than any other system in history. I don’t know how anyone could argue with this. Even if you ignore most of world history (as you seem to do), just take China and see what capitalism has done for their quality of life over the past 20 years, and multiply by 1.3 Billion. And that ignores every other capitalist country in the world.

    Finally, I agree with the other comment and see no point of continued discussion with you Comrade. Good luck feeling the Bern.

  • Charles Owen

    Wow!

    “We have the highest rates in _our_ history.” That proves what? And you’re not even right. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/28/home-ownership-rates-drop-to-lowest-since-1967.html

    “Second, the US has the second highest percentage of college graduates in the world with 52%.” Reference on that one? See http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/09/13/24-7-wall-st-most-educated-countries/15460733/ or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_tertiary_education_attainment or http://www.russellsage.org/research/chartbook/percentage-population-select-countries-bachelors-degrees-or-higher-age.

    “Third, I brought up Communism because you brought up Romania and Russia.” Wow! Neither has had a communist system of government for over a quarter of a century!!!

    “Fourth”. I’m not favoring socialism. You make the assumption that anyone who does not agree with your unfettered free market principles wants to be Venezuela. I support some socialist programs, like social security, medicare, and single payer, I oppose others, like the free college tuition idea.

    Then you call me “Comrade”…

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