The US government has delayed its response to a trade union challenge to its decision to grant Irish-based Norwegian Air International an airline permit because one of its lawyers has been defending President Donald Trump's travel ban.
Norwegian recently got US Customs and Border Control approval to fly to Stewart Airport in New York State and Providence, Rhode Island, clearing final regulatory hurdles to its planned transatlantic flights from Ireland, including the first such service from Cork.
However, airline unions are continuing with a legal challenge to Washington’s department of transportation’s decision last December to give the airline permission to fly to the US.
US transportation secretary Elaine Chao recently asked the federal appeals court to extend the deadline for her response to the unions' legal arguments from this month to July 7th. Her lead counsel in the case, Sharon Swingle, has been working for the White House on appeals against the president's travel ban.
A federal appeals court this week upheld a challenge by the International Refugee Assistance Project against the ban which suspended US visa applications from six Muslim-majority countries.
Ms Swingle was one of the lawyers representing the president in that case and is on the same side in another appeal, State of Hawaii v Trump. Legal documents cite her involvement in these actions, and the fact that she would be out of the US for a period, as the transportation secretary's reasons for seeking the extension, which the court granted to Ms Chao.
While the unions’ challenge is against the decision to grant the permit to Norwegian Air International, and not against the airline itself, the carrier does have the right to make its own submissions to the court.
A spokesman said that Norwegian was considering a response but argued that it was “widely recognised” that unions’ arguments were “tired and false allegations” already dismissed by the department of transportation’s ruling that the airline had a right to a US foreign carrier’s permit.
The unions, including the Airline Pilots’ Association, represent 100,000 US pilots and cabin crew. They are challenging the decision to grant Norwegian its permit on the grounds that the department of transportation did not weigh a key part of the US-EU air travel treaty when issuing it.
They claim that the airline's parent, Norwegian Air Shuttle, registered it in the Republic to avoid labour protections and hire staff on contracts issued by Asian companies. However, the Scandinavian group and its chief executive, Bjorn Kjos, have dismissed this.
Norwegian will begin flying to the east of the US from Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Shannon next July. Its parent intends using the Irish-registered airline to offer low-cost, long-haul flights between Europe, North America and Asia.