LATEST UPDATES: One of the Norwegian pilots’ unions at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) broke off negotiations on a new contract early Thursday morning, launching the first phase of a strike that initially would affect some intercontinental flights. More flights will be grounded if no negotiations resume over the next few days, but Swedish pilots came to terms with SAS later on Thursday morning and SAS was hoping traffic would run mostly as normal through the weekend.
Only six pilots who are members of trade union federation LO’s Norske SAS-flygeres Forening (NSF) were taken out on strike but more of the union’s 312 members can be called out if the conflict between NSF and the employers’ organization negotiating on behalf of SAS, NHO Luftfart, fail to come to terms.
The strike comes just before the three-day holiday weekend known as pinse (Whitsund), when traffic was expected to be heavier than normal. Union officials said the strike could be expanded during the weekend after talks broke off at 5:20am Thursday. SAS flights within Norway and between European destinations are expected to operate as usual pending strike expansion.
Long-haul flights threatened
The pilots taken out on strike work on trans-Atlantic routes, putting their fate in question. SAS’ daily non-stop flight from Oslo to Newark (New York), which leaves shortly after 11am, had not been cancelled as of 10am but passengers were urged to stay in touch with SAS.
In a statement issued by SAS Thursday morning (external link), passengers were also urged against heading for the airport if their flight was cancelled and instead contact SAS or their travel agency. SAS was offering new tickets at the first opportunity, at a later date pending seat availability or refunds.
SAS’ chief executive Rikard Gustafson apologized to passengers for the looming flight disruptions. “Our passengers will suffer during the conflict, and I can only say I’m sorry that we now face a situation that threatens to affect many passengers in a negative manner,” Gustafson stated in a message to the stock exchange.
Norwegian union alone in conflict with SAS
Flights between Norway and Sweden would have been hit hard if SAS’ Swedish pilots who are members of the Svensk Pilot Forening (SPF) also went out on strike. They warned of a strike by its roughly 300 members from Thursday, and SAS responded by cancelling 110 flights, mostly from and to Sweden, so that passengers wouldn’t get stranded and aircraft would remain in more central locations. Among them were eight flights between Oslo and Stockholm on Thursday. SAS reported that passengers would either be booked on new flights or get their money back.
At 9:30 Thursday morning, however, SAS confirmed that the Swedish pilots had agreed to a new one-year contract with SAS after all-night negotiations. That left the Norwegian pilots alone in their demands for a better deal. Flights already cancelled by SAS that were scheduled to depart before 2pm won’t take off, but other cancelled flights scheduled to depart later in the day and on Friday were now expected to operate. Again, passengers would need to check their flights’ status with SAS.
Pilots not united in complicated union structure
SAS’ pilots are members of various unions in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and thus not united in their demands. Some of the unions already have accepted new contracts with SAS. That means many flights will keep running, after around 500 Danish pilots accepted a collective bargaining agreement in April as did the members of SAS Norge Pilotforening (SNP) in Norway, which is made up mostly of pilots from the Norwegian domestic airline Braathens SAFE, which was formally acquired by SAS’ Norwegian division in 2004.
“The airline industry is tough, and the most important thing for us was to have a secure job to go to with sensible working conditions,” SAS Captain Nils Lo, a board member of SNP, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) over the weekend. SNP accepted its new contract with SAS last week and its members were on the job this week.
New tone after Norwegian Air strike
SNP is part of trade union federation Parat, which carried out a long and bitter strike against Norwegian Air earlier this year. Parat leader Hans-Erik Skjæggerud told DN that the labour federation wanted to give SAS “the possibility to survive over time” in a fiercely competitive industry.
“Our members have realized that SAS is flying in a demanding market and needs a collective bargaining agreement in line with the competition,” he told DN, rather in contrast to his position during the Norwegian Air strike. He refused, however, to say what he thought his counterparts at NSF should do, noting only that labour federation LO “must fight for its own members.”
The members of NSF, also known as Norsk Cockpitforbund, claimed that SAS through NHO was trying to “dictate” the terms of a new contract, especially regarding working conditions. The pilots have long complained that longer working hours can threaten flight safety and their own health.