A professor of economics at one of Norway’s top business schools claimed on Tuesday that there’s “no room any longer” for the favourable pay and benefits packages that labour unions could once secure for airline employees. As a strike by a pilots’ union in Norway stretched into its sixth day against Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), he warned that airlines that don’t or can’t slash their costs won’t survive.
“The airline employees have traditionally had strong unions who have managed to exert their will in many earlier conflicts,” Professor Frode Steen at Norges Handelshøyskole (NHH) in Bergen told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. “That time has passed. Low-fare airlines have turned up and that’s led to (a need for) lower costs and tougher competition. Therefore there’s no longer room for favourable working conditions.”
Three of SAS’ pilot unions have accepted new contracts aimed at reducing costs for the long-troubled airline, but one of SAS’ two pilot unions in Norway called a strike last week in a move to preserve its members’ shorter work hours, pensions and other terms. Pilots pulled off the job by the LO-affiliated union NSF (Norske SAS-flygeres Forening) work mostly on intercontinental flights, leading to the cancellations of flights to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Shanghai and Tokyo over the holiday weekend.
SAS cancels another New York flight
No negotiations between the union and SAS have been held since the strike was called early Thursday morning, and the union pulled another 11 pilots off the job during the weekend. No flights were affected on Tuesday but with 17 of SAS’ long-haul pilots now on strike, SAS said it had to cancel its only non-stop long haul flight to and from Oslo again on Wednesday, SK907/908 between Oslo and Newark (New York).
“Another 500 passengers will be affected, and we’re trying to find solutions for them,” SAS spokesman Knut Morten Johansen told news bureau NTB on Tuesday. SAS stressed that other flights within Norway and to Europe were operating as usual.
The strike by some of SAS’ Norwegian pilots is the latest in a string of recent pilot strikes, not least the highly disruptive and bitter conflict at Norwegian Air earlier this year. Both Lufthansa and Air France/KLM have also been disrupted by unhappy pilots, but Steen of NHH says cost cuts within the airline industry are “absolutely necessary” if traditional airlines are to survive against all the newer low-fare carriers. “If they don’t face this fight (to cut costs), there eventually won’t be any airline to fight the fight in,” Steen told Aftenposten.
The current SAS strike is what Steen called “another power struggle” in line with earlier conflicts. “The pilots’ strong position in a market that was strictly regulated earlier led to very good working conditions for them,” Steen said. “Once upon a time, in the 1980s, the airlines earned a lot of money because they could charge NOK 6,000-7,000 for a round-trip flight to Copenhagen. It’s not like that anymore. Now their economy is under pressure. Many airlines are losing money, and have been for a while.”
He said he could understand some of the pilots’ claims that the cost cuts can threaten safety. “We don’t want underpaid pilots who live in constant fear that their jobs will disappear,” Steen said. He added, though, that he wasn’t certain a change in working conditions and lower costs would necessarily weaken safety. “I have faith that the various aviation authorities in Europe will, under their control, make sure safety rules are followed,” he said.