How Can Norwegian Fly Charters Between the US and Mexico? (Ask Cranky)

Back in July, this winter. That may not sound all that strange until you realize that Norwegian will be operating flights from Milwaukee and Chicago into Mexico and the Caribbean.

I received several questions from readers asking, in short, “how the heck can an airline Ask Crankyfrom Norway operate flights between two unrelated? That’s not allowed, right?” I decided to investigate.

You might think this is similar to what Emirates is doing between New York and Milan. After all, it’s a UAE-based airline flying between two separate countries. But there are differences.

The Emirates flight is a fifth-freedom operation (learn your freedoms here), because it starts in the UAE, goes to a second country and then continues on to a third country. This Norwegian operation would technically be a seventh-freedom flight because it doesn’t start in Europe. These airplanes will be based in the US in order to fly down to Mexico and the Caribbean, not getting anywhere near Norway.

Of course, it seems like it would be even harder to get permission for a seventh-freedom flight than a fifth-freedom flight, so it’s still curious why Norwegian would be allowed to do this. The answer is somewhat surprising. It seems almost any airline can do this.

The Department of Transportation apparently has a policy of allowing charter companies to enter into an agreement with just about any airline to operate flights, regardless of nationality. There are just a couple caveats.

  • The operating airline has to have a foreign air carrier permit to fly to the US. This particular deal is with Norwegian Air Shuttle, the Norwegian-based airline that flies a ton of flights to the US already, so it’s not a concern. (Norwegian Air International and Norwegian Air UK are the ones that the DOT is sitting on. It should be a crime that the DOT simply refuses to do its job and rule one way or the other on these airlines’ fitness, but that seems to be the M.O. of this Secretary of Transportation. That, however, has nothing to do with this particular request.)
  • Carriers are only allowed to apply if their home governments also allow US carriers to be considered for charters there. In other words, it’s all about reciprocity. That does narrow it down, but Norway apparently is more than happy to give US carriers the same access within Norway in the unlikely event they want it. For that reason, Norwegian is in the clear..
  • US carriers are given a week to lodge any objections before the application moves forward. I assume that means another airline would have to step in and say it wanted to do it for the same price. Nobody seems to have objected here, and I don’t get the feeling objections happen often.

Because of all this, Norwegian had no problem getting approved. In its application, it says it will operation 232 roundtrip flights this winter on 737-800s. If you’re doing an Apple or Funjet vacation this winter from Chicago or Milwaukee, get ready to do a double take when you see a Norwegian airplane pulling up to the gate.

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