Europe will begin the arbitration process over Norwegian UK’s (NUK) application to serve US routes if the US does not soon approve the application, a senior European Commission (EC) official warned this week.

NUK has been waiting a year-and-a-half for a US Department of Transportation (DOT) response to its application for a foreign air permit. Some US airlines and labor groups oppose the low-cost carrier’s application, even though it falls within the remit of the European Union-US Open Skies agreement.

The US delay in ruling on the application echoes the long stalling over Ireland-based Norwegian Air International’s (NAI) foreign air carrier permit, which was also opposed by US majors and union groups and took three years for DOT to approve. Eventually, frustrated by the inaction, the EC gave notice it would launch arbitration. DOT awarded the permit later that year, almost three years after it was submitted.

NUK and NAI are subsidiaries of Norwegian Air Shuttle.

Speaking at the International Aviation Club in Washington Monday, EC director general for Transport and Mobility Henrik Hololei stressed the importance of the 10-year EU-US Open Skies agreement and said the EC would strongly defend its principles and not allow a piecemeal approach to it. He said he “sincerely hoped” that lessons were learned from the NAI application, which was “very painful,” but noted the NUK application had now been pending for one-and-a-half years.

“There is little doubt we will take up arbitration if this application is not processed and I would invite US authorities to resolve this issue as soon as possible,” he said.

Hololei praised the EU-US Open Skies agreements as an accomplishment that needed to be “cherished and protected,” but which must also adapt to a rapidly changing environment. He said the agreement had served the EU and the US well, with 55 million passengers in the transatlantic market today, which is still the most developed market.

He said it was time “to be bold and not inward looking or protectionist,” and to use the agreement as a tool to address current and future aviation needs.

Among areas where bold change should be discussed, Hololei proposed, was airline ownership control rules.

Karen Walker