Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

6 June 2014

It has no doubt been a hard month for US secretary of transportation Anthony Foxx. After months of revelations about General Motors and faults with its vehicles he saw no choice but to slap a hefty $35m (€25.6m) fine on the carmaker. It’s been a costly debacle for the company and for consumers – a number of which allegedly lost their lives due to the factory defects of certain GM models.

Moves like Foxx’s serve to penalise a company for wrongdoing and they make the case that the consumer is the ultimate part of the equation. Presumably this is to protect the buyer by ensuring that companies from which we purchase goods and services always sell the best possible product. Enter another big issue for Mr Foxx to consider – he’s soon expected to make a decision on whether or not Norwegian Air Shuttle should be issued a certificate to legally expand its flight operations in the US.

This issue is about protecting consumers’ rights to choose. Norwegian says it offers travellers significantly reduced fares on routes that have long been dominated by more established and much bigger airlines. Opponents, which include major US air carriers and labour unions, are demanding that the transportation secretary deny Norwegian’s bid to become a fully-fledged operator on US routes to destinations in Europe. They’re questioning Norwegian’s labour practices and the places in which the air carrier has registered its aircraft. Clearly the story gets complicated but at the heart of it is a simple fear: a good product at a decent price such as Norwegian’s is a very scary proposition in terms of competition.

I’ve flown Norwegian on a transatlantic flight and the major US carriers (and those in Europe) should be scared. The flight attendants were actually happy. The food, although paid for, was actually good. The carrier’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner was a welcome addition to the old-dog jets that the majors seem to think a new coat of paint and shiny new seats can fix.

So the ball is in Foxx’s court. Both sides have made their case but if I had a chance to sit with him before he makes his decision I’d remind him of the consumers – the people that, given his recent moves with GM, he has clearly shown to be the more important part of the equation.

We deserve choice, better fares and comfier seats. If I were him I’d even suggest that he urge the major airlines fighting Norwegian to take a good look at themselves – to start fighting with product and value instead of hyperbole.

Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle.

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