US lobbyists get $1m in effort to secure permit for European routes
Scandinavian airline Norwegian has paid a total of over $1m to a high-profile Washington lobby firm and a former senior civil servant with the US Department of State in its efforts to secure a US permit for its Dublin-based subsidiary, according to figures seen by the Irish Independent.
Norwegian Air Shuttle's Irish subsidiary, Norwegian Air International (NAI), has been pressing US authorities to issue it a permit to enable it to fly to America from Europe.
Aviation unions in America opposed to NAI's plans have also made donations totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars to US politicians who are fighting their case against the carrier in Washington.
The payments by Norwegian Air Shuttle were made between 2014 and 2016 amid a background of intense lobbying for and against the Irish subsidiary's plans to operate flights from Europe to the United States under the Open Skies deal.
NAI has been trying to secure a permit to fly from Europe to the US for over two years.
The US Department of Transportation indicated in April that it intended to grant the permit, but the process has since stalled.
The EU has warned the US that the failure to issue the permit could damage wider trade relations between them.
US aviation unions claim that NAI only wants to use Ireland as a base to circumvent more stringent labour laws in Norway, something it and Norwegian Air Shuttle have consistently denied.
NAI wants to launch routes including services from Cork to Boston and New York. Dozens of companies, organisations and high-profile individuals in Ireland had submitted letters of support for NAI's plan to the US Department of Transportation.
In the US, many aviation unions have opposed NAI, although many airports there have voiced their support for the Ireland-based carrier.
Filings collated by the Centre for Responsive Politics in the US show that Norwegian Air Shuttle paid $450,000 in lobbying fees in 2014. That included $360,000 to Washington-based public relations firm Prime Policy Group, and $90,000 to John Byerly.
Mr Byerly is a former deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs at the US State Department. In 2015, Norwegian paid $360,000 to Prime Group and $60,000 to Mr Byerly.
So far this year, Prime Group has been paid $180,000, and Mr Byerly has received $40,000 from Norwegian. Mr Byerly also has also lobbied on issues in the US on behalf of Emirates.
Prime Policy Group is among the biggest lobby firms in Washington DC. It's a unit of London-based global advertising giant WPP. Prime Policy's clients include companies and organisations such as GlaxoSmithkline, Airbus and the National Rifle Association.
So far this year, the firm has raked in at least $4.5m in lobbying fees. Last year, its figure was just over $10m.
"The unique nature of the US political and legal system mean that Norwegian employs a law firm and advisors in Washington to advise on key political and legal matters - this is common practice among large organisations operating in the US," said a spokesman for Norwegian.
He added: "Their work includes advising on Norwegian's applications to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and in communicating NAI's legitimate right for a foreign carrier permit - a fact clearly acknowledged in the DoT's tentative approval of NAI earlier this year."
He said that no other lobbyist payments have been made by the airline in the US or Europe.