Frustration fuels SAS strike threat

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Pilots at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) haven’t been able to negotiate the airline’s controversial plans to hire and base new pilots, at lower wages and benefits, in England and Spain. They’ve thus resorted to raising old demands, like getting more weekends off, and are warning they’ll walk off the job if their demands aren’t met.

SAS aircraft like this one may be grounded by mid-September if the airline’s pilots and their management fail to resolve long-simmering conflicts. A strike looms from September 11. PHOTO: SAS

The prospect of another major pilots’ strike in Scandinavia means passengers face more severe travel disruption in September. Three unions representing SAS’ Danish and Norwegian pilots have sent out their first formal warnings of a labour conflict, after talks officially broke down late last week.

The leader of SAS Norge Pilotforening (SNF), Jan Levi Skogvang, told news bureau NTB that negotiations have actually been stalled since last spring. SNF thus sent out its strike warning on behalf of its 230 members to Norway’s state mediator (Riksmekleren), as did Norske SAS-flygeres Forening (NSF), which has around 360 members. SAS’ Danish pilots organized in the Dansk Pilotforenig (DPF) are also ready to strike, reported the Danish airline industry website Check-In.dk this week.

Mediation has been scheduled for September 9-10. If the state mediator doesn’t manage to resolve conflicts between frustrated pilots and SAS management, which has struggled for years to cut costs to compete against low-fare carriers, the pilots can opt to strike from September 11.

‘They’re taking our jobs’
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Tuesday that the pilots’ frustration is rooted in SAS management’s plans, announced last winter, to open new bases for SAS aircraft and crews at Heathrow Airport in London and at Marbella in Spain. The new bases would cut costs for SAS, much like similar bases have cut costs but also contributed to setting off a strike at rival Norwegian Air two years ago. SAS’ new bases are due to be operational from November 1.

“It’s clear this has had a negative effect on the climate between the two sides,” Jens Lippestad of NSF told DN. “They’re taking our jobs.” He also claims SAS’ new Irish-registered subsidiary set up to run the bases outside Scandinavia, called SAIL, will use SAS’ newest Airbus A320neo aircraft “bought with money that we helped the airline earn over many years.”

DN noted that EU regulations, meanwhile, prevent the establishment of the new bases from being part of their negotiations. The Norwegian and Danish pilots thus have resorted to raising old demands, like getting more free weekends, receiving their work schedules sooner, having more flexible shifts and more pilots on the jobs during the busy summer tourist months.

Strike can cost jobs, too
There is some hope that a strike can be averted. Airline analyst Jacob Pedersen at Sydbank in Denmark said the threat of a strike has already put pressure on SAS and its management, and on employees. “At the same time, I think the pilots realize that they’re not well-served by a major conflict, because that can put their jobs in danger,” Pedersen told DN.

Mediation will be over worktime, which also was a central theme last spring, when SAS’ Danish and Norwegian pilots opted not to strike. They agreed on overtime pay, while SAS’ Swedish pilots went on strike for five days. That cost the airline an estimated SEK 150 million.

SAS management won’t comment on the conflict in detail, saying only that they have “a strong ambition” to agree on a new collective bargaining pact and avoid a strike.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund