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

Ask Cranky, Government Regulation, Norwegian

Back in July, Norwegian announced that it would start doing charter flying for Apple Vacations and Funjet Vacations 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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28 comments on “How Can Norwegian Fly Charters Between the US and Mexico? (Ask Cranky)

    1. Michael – Beats me. It’s highly political with plenty of people sitting on both sides. So instead of doing its job and ruling one way or the other, it just keeps kicking the can down the road.

  1. Icelandair and Sunwing also have operated/will operate similar charters between the US and Mexico & the Caribbean. Would this type of operation be allowed for charter flights that are entirely within the US?

      1. Actually, AC operates domestic U.S. sports charters for U.S. teams as well. As I recall, Jetz carried Bruce Springsteen on tour all over the U.S.

  2. Isn’t that interesting! I always wondered how Sunwing would operate from Buffalo to points south but now I know.

  3. Do US labor laws apply to crews for these flights? Do they need to be be able to legally work in the US to work these flights?

    1. Same as with any international flight. The crew needs to be able to legally enter the US but does not need any work permit as they are not technically employed in the US.

      1. Seems weird to me. Could an IT contractor use foreign employees on US work contracts and argue that they don’t need a work visa/green card because they are technically not employed in the US?

        1. J1 “Exchange” visa is a pretty popular tool to go around very limited quota on work visas (H1-B)

  4. Hey Cranky,

    “…in the unlikely even they want it”, I assume should read “event” not “even”.

  5. CF- I’m a big proponent of MKE vs. ORD / MDW, like you are of LGB vs. LAX. With that said, will having done these charter flights help or hinder any effort of MKE to bring regularly scheduled Norwegian TATL flights? Or for that matter any international flights? Granted the international facilities are lacking, but making E an international concourse would surely help.

  6. Uzbekistan Airways does the same thing flying winter charters from Japan to Alaska for aurora borealis tours.

    It’s easy to do a double take walking through FAI and seeing a big banner for Uzbekistan Airways.

  7. So is this a backdoor the seventh and ninth freedoms of the air? For example could a US company operate public charter flights that were operated by a foreign airline?

    I’m sure the other airlines would complain to no end and its likely the DOT would find some way to rule against it.. but????

    1. these aren’t the same type of public charters in the sense they are actually being handled by a real tour operator, and not just an airline acting as a travel agent. You have to buy a package with Apple or Funjet to fly on them as I don’t think either are offering air-only packages (they did at one point).

      Apple has quite a long history of charter operators – including an inhouse job called USA 3000. They also used Private Jet, which had a very cool livery.

      1. I wonder how “thin” a tour package could be while still being a tour package. Could they perhaps just offer a car rental as the tour and you have to plan the rest? Or maybe just a meal at the airport when you arrive or right before you depart?

        1. Would offering only a car rental really be that different from offering a flight + ground transportation (at destination airport) to an all-inclusive resort?

  8. CF:

    Your statements about DOT allowing US entities to charter foreign carriers are correct. However, the passenger revenue goes to the US entities, so it’s not Norwegian using 7th Freedom. The US-EU/Ireland/Norway Open Skies Agreement does not cover 7th Freedom for carrying passengers (but it allows 7th Freedom for all-cargo operations).

    Before 2005, Iberia based a few MD87s (and later A319s) in MIA to serve Mexican, Caribbean and Central American destinations. Some people had mistaken those as 7th Freedom. Those were actually 5th Freedom services, namely beyond rights for their two daily MAD-MIA flights. The criterion used then was the total seats to Latin America from MIA could not exceed the total seats on the MAD-MIA flights.

    Norwegian will start their own 5th Freedom flights to the Caribbean from BWI, BOS, JFK, etc. using 737s. However, those flights will not put those 737s in full deployment. That’s probably the driver behind getting charter contracts.

  9. United has two 747s positioned in the Spanish islands (Majorca and Tenerife) ready to operate charters to the UK. It’s a different scenario; there’s a risk the UK’s Monarch could have its AOC revoked tomorrow and the UK Civil Aviation Authority has chartered those UA planes for rescue flights for stranded passengers.

    But it’s a US carrier (possibly) operating charter flights wholly outside the US.

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