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Norwegian wins preliminary approval to expand U.S.-to-Europe flights

Good news for people who love budget airlines — and for the people who run one called Norwegian Air.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday it is giving the low-cost carrier preliminary approval to expand routes between the U.S. and Europe, using an Irish subsidiary. 

The ruling comes after two years of intense lobbying and public relations campaigns by both Norwegian and major U.S. airlines and their labor unions. The U.S. airlines oppose this move, arguing the subsidiary will be an unfair, low-wage competitor on key trans-Atlantic routes.

Norwegian offers cheap airfare by charging extra for many services considered standard on international flights — seat assignments, snacks, checked and carry-on baggage and more. The airline currently offers flights to Scandinavia and the UK from a handful of major U.S. cities, but this approval would allow it to expand U.S. routes.

The Transportation Department, which took an unusually long time to review the proposal, said that it will take public comments before issuing a final order that could allow the Norwegian subsidiary to begin flying to the U.S.

Norwegian called the decision a victory for consumers and said it intended to hire U.S.-based crews.

Bjorn Kjos, CEO of Norwegian Group, said final approval for the U.S. flights "will be win-win for consumers and the economy on both sides of the Atlantic." He said Norwegian would create "thousands" of jobs and help the economies of its U.S. destinations.

U.S. airline unions immediately criticized the decision. Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, called it "an affront to fair competition." Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the Obama administration "has chosen foreign corporations over workers' rights and good American jobs."

American carriers and their unions had argued that Norwegian decided to expand U.S. service using an Irish subsidiary because Ireland's tax and labor laws are weaker than those in the United States. They said Norwegian would gain an unfair advantage and undercut the American carriers on fares.

In its preliminary ruling to grant a foreign-airline permit to Norwegian Air International, the Transportation Department said it saw no evidence that the Irish subsidiary would violate labor terms contained in a so-called open-skies aviation treaty between the United States and the European Union.

The Transportation Department will accept public comments until May 6.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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