A pilots’ strike at Norwegian Air that resulted in the cancellation of nearly all Scandivian flights Wednesday, affecting about 35,000 people, could have major consequences for Svalbard beginning Friday.
The discount airline’s resumption of flights between Oslo and Longyearbyen in March of 2013 is widely credited for a large rise in visitors, beginning with a 25 percent increase during its first month. The strike is occurring at the beginning of what are Svalbard’s two busiest tourism months of the year – and this year is an exceptional case due to the March 20 total solar eclipse that is expected to bring what will be by far a record number of people to the archipelago.
The next Norwegian flight to Longyearbyen is scheduled Friday, with flights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the following weeks.
Norwegian Air, in a press statement, said “we will do everything we can to protect our passengers the best possible way,” including SMS updates about specific flights to all passengers with registered mobile phone numbers. The airline also plans to bring in planes and staff to provide service for some European routes.
Calls to Norwegian Air officials about whether contingency plans will be considered for exceptional circumstance such as the eclipse have not been returned.
The strike by the Norwegian Pilot Union, occurring after three months of unsuccessful negotiations with management, centers around concerns working conditions in Norway, Denmark and Sweden will deteriorate as the airlines pushes to trim costs. Norwegian reported its first annual loss in eight years in 2014 due to an aggressive expansion plan emphasizing long-haul flights.
Einar Lundereng, a spokesman for the pilots’ union, told Adresseavisen “the pilots are prepared to strike as long as they need to,” but “I do not think this will take a long time.”
“We have a strike fund which means that we can hold out for quite a while,” he said. “But we do not think this will take long. It is expensive to let the planes be grounded. We think there will be a solution in a matter of days.”
Norwegian resumed service to Svalbard five years after dropping flights it had started only a year earlier. It was the second time in a short span the discount airline abandoned service to the archipelago after a year, raising questions about the company’s long-term commitment to Svalbard.
The airline’s original plan in 2013 was to offer flights during peak tourism months, but strong booking figures resulted in the company providing year-round service.
Local business owners have generally said they are pleased with the additional visitors since tourism is seen as vital to the economy due to coal mining’s descent into crisis. But some tour operators and government officials have expressed concerns many of the budget-minded passengers arrive without proper equipment for Svalbard’s extreme environment, and lack knowledge about dangers such as avalanches and polar bears.