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Just the ticket: Norwegian airline to offer flights from BWI to French Caribbean

The West Indies have never been closer to Baltimore.

This may be just the ticket: a $79 one-way flight to the French Caribbean this winter.

Norwegian Air Shuttle said Thursday that it plans to launch twice-weekly nonstop service from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies beginning Dec. 3.

Norwegian, the third largest low-cost carrier in Europe, has been rapidly expanding in the U.S. since it opened its first route from Oslo to New York in 2013, banking on a combination of low fares and direct flights to win passengers. The Caribbean route is its first foray into the Baltimore and Boston markets, making it active at eight U.S. airports.

The budget airline, based in Oslo, also wants to add European flights from Boston and Baltimore in late 2016 or 2017, once it has more aircraft, said CEO Bjorn Kjos.

"Baltimore is high on the list for long-haul operation," Kjos said at a news conference at BWI. "You just wait. We'll come."

Airport officials, who have been working to carve a niche for BWI as the low-cost, international hub for the Washington region, broke into applause at the pronouncement.

Still, plans for additional European flights face head winds.

Traditional carriers, labor groups and others contend that the Norwegian company is seeking to avoid labor laws by establishing a long-haul operation in Ireland.

Amid the dispute, Norwegian's 2013 application to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a permit for an Irish affiliate to serve U.S. markets "and beyond" has been pending for 15 months. Norwegian has put on hold orders for additional Boeing aircraft.

This month, Kjos wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, pledging to use American or European pilots and crews on trans-Atlantic flights and urging him to approve the permit "without further delay."

The airline, which also endured an 11-day strike by Scandinavian pilots this spring, maintains that it keeps costs low by using newer, more efficient aircraft and carrying a higher volume of passengers. It employs about 400 people in the U.S. and hopes to add more, said Norwegian spokesman Anders Lindstrom.

It's "strange" for the company to be launching the shorter Caribbean routes, given its long-haul push, Kjos said Thursday.

But the seasonal service to the West Indies from Baltimore, New York and Boston, will keep aircraft in service during the winter, when demand for European trips falls, Lindstrom said.

And it's a way to get a start in the wealthy, populous Baltimore market while waiting for additional planes, said Kjos, a former Norwegian air force pilot and maritime lawyer.

"When we started to think about flying out of these islands, we were looking at what catchment areas we would really like to go into and also would like to come in after with long-haul flights," Kjos said.

The Caribbean flights are the first direct routes from the Northeast to Guadeloupe and Martinique in decades, tourism officials said. (American Airlines started service from Miami in 2013.)

The islands, which are part of France, have been trying to broaden their visitor base. A majority of tourists come from France, but with the new flights — and a relatively weak Euro — they're hoping to see more Americans.

"The problem with us was the problem of accessibility and price," said Sandra Venite, a regional manager for the Guadeloupe Islands Tourist Board. "Now the euro is low and with a high-quality, low-cost airline, it is really going to be a game changer for us."

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