UPDATED: The chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) traveled to Oslo on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to ward off a pilots’ strike that already has cancelled 100 SAS flights in and out of Norway on Thursday. The pilots, after being contacted by SAS management, then headed back into a new round of mediation Wednesday afternoon, but a midnight deadline came and went with no agreement.
“Everyone involved sees the consequences of the situation,” state mediator Nils Dalseide told reporters durng a break shortly before midnight. “They also know there’s a third party here (passengers who’ll be hit hardest) but there is strong disagreement and it’s demanding to get it to disappear.
“We will sit here as long as possible to get a solution. We don’t know if we’ll manage that before the strike expands (early Thursday morning).”
The mediation resumed after Rickard Gustafson, CEO of SAS, arrived in Oslo Wednesday morning and launched an appeal to end the strike that was called on Monday. Gustafson publicly described the pilots’ demands for pay hikes and more time off as “unreasonable, unacceptable” and even “impossible.”
Gustafson appealed to SAS’ Norwegian pilots to reconsider their strike plans to pull nearly 600 pilots off the job, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “this is a serious situation where our pilot unions are in fact challenging Norwegian society, putting our customers in a difficult situation and, in the long run, threatening SAS and its very existence.”
The strike was already costing SAS dearly this week, with new ticket sales grinding to a halt and passengers trying to flee to other airlines. It took passengers a long time to get through to SAS agents on the phone on Wednesday, as they sought solutions for travel plans that may be disrupted. SAS flights with Swedish and Danish cockpit crews will continue to take off, though, and SAS will try to re-route passengers on other Star Alliance flights run, for example, by Lufthansa.
Flights on other airlines out of Oslo were already heavily booked with no seats left on Norwegian Air flights to London Gatwick, for example, and only very expensive tickets available on British Airways to London Heathrow. Some SAS passengers were trying to get themselves to Stockholm or Copenhagen and fly onward from there. Thursday’s cancellations affect flights from early morning until 2pm.
Danish and Swedish pilots settled
SAS’ chief executive praised Norwegian pilots themselves but claimed their unions were making unreasonable demands. “The total demands regarding pay and working terms would together raise the costs of our Norwegian pilots in the order of 20- to 25 percent,” Gustafson said. “That’s many times double what other working groups in Norway have received, and we can’t accept that.”
SAS’ pilots in Norway don’t seem to have won much public sympathy, with even their pilot colleagues in both Sweden and Denmark expressing concern over the Norwegian unions’ demands. The Swedish and Danish pilots have accepted new three-year contracts with SAS that the airline claims have also been offered to the Norwegians with the same terms. The Norwegians reportedly want better terms.
Asked whether the Norwegian pilots can demand more than their colleagues in Sweden and Denmark, the leader of the Danish pilot union (Dansk Pilotforening) told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday that “in principle, I have an opinion. I can’t understand why it seems impossible to reach an agreement with the same terms that we received.”
Neither of the Norwegian union leaders would comment on what amounted to a rebuke from their Danish colleague. The leader of the Swedish pilots’ union (Svensk Pilotforening) said he could understand that the Norwegian pilots want to fight for their own agreement, “but it is of course very sad if it ends in a huge conflict. I hope the two sides agree on something soon.”
So did Gustafson: “I hope we can find solutions and avoid a conflict, but we are in a difficult situation and I’m extremely worried and uneasy that many of our customers (the thousands of passengers holding tickets on SAS flights during the next several days) can suffer.”
Others have claimed the pending strike poses a major risk to the future of the airline, which continues to face tough competition from cut-rate carriers that don’t have personnel costs that are as high as those at SAS. The pilots have also been referred to as already being “a privileged group” within SAS, with average salaries of NOK 1 million (USD 130,000) a year.
Jan Levi Skogvang, leader of the Parat labour federation’s union now known as ScanNor Flygerforening (SNF), said he expected SAS management to “reach out a hand to us” at the meeting on Wednesday. He and the leader of the other pilots’ union NSF (Norske SAS-flygernes forening) Jens Lippestad have also accused SAS management of lying and presenting a misleading picture of their so-called “privileges.” Lippestad said that given the “provocations” from SAS in Norweigan media, it didn’t look promising that a solution would be found.
The new mediation session came at the initiative of SAS management, which continued to claim late Wednesday afternoon that they were “working hard” to satisfy the pilots.