SAS pilots’ strike strands thousands

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UPDATED: Around 60,000 passengers of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) were grounded along with their flights on Friday, after mediation with SAS’ Swedish, Danish and Norwegian pilots broke down during the night. Around 550 SAS flights were cancelled in Norway alone.

Around 70 percent of SAS flights won’t be going anywhere until the airline’s Scandinavian pilots agree to return to work. PHOTO: SAS

The Swedish pilots were the first to call a strike at 2:25am, while their Danish and Norwegian colleagues kept talking with their respective state mediators. By 6am the Danes and Norwegians also had failed to come to terms.

SAS started cancelling early morning flights on Friday even before the strike was called, out of consideration, the airline claimed, for both passengers and SAS employees not involved in the labour conflict. The cancellations ended uncertainty over whether morning flights would take off and can trigger refunds for passengers.

By 5:30am SAS had cancelled a total of 315 flights, with hundreds more now grounded as well. SAS flights operating out of hubs in the UK and Spain, however, would continue to operate because their crews and pilots are not members of the Scandinavian labour unions.

Among flights cancelled out of Norway’s gateway airport, Oslo Gardermoen, on Friday were SAS’ daily intercontinental flight to New York (Newark) at 11:10am along with flights to Alicante, Copenhagen, Milan, Manchester, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Brussels, Nice, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva, Zurich, Paris, Svalbard and most all destinations within Norway. Some passengers may be rebooked on SAS’ Star Alliance partners, but capacity was limited.

At issue are conflicts over work schedules and pay, with the pilots demanding raises of 10 percent or more now that the once crisis-ridden SAS has returned to profitability. The pilots’ unions remain strong in Scandinavia, with both sides blaming the other for the strike. No new talks were scheduled as of early Friday morning.

Parties ‘so far apart’
Norway’s state mediator Mats W Ruland had been trying to work out a settlement between the Norwegian pilots’ two unions on the one side and the national employers’ organization for airlines, NHO Luftfart, and SAS on the other. SAS’ Norwegian pilots are organized through both Norsk Flygerforbund (part of Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO) and Norsk Pilotforbund (part of another labour organization, Parat), a remnant of the time before SAS acquired the former Norwegian domestic carrier Braathens SAFE.

Mediator Ruland wrote in a press release Friday morning that the two sides “stood so far from one another that there was no foundation to put forth a proposal that could be recommended (to the pilots and SAS management) by both parties.” Ruland said the negotiations had been “demanding.” Mediators in Sweden and Denmark faced the same situation. The various Scandinavian unions are also part of the umbrella organization SAS Pilot Group, and work together during labour conflicts.

SAS: ‘Incredible disappointment’
SAS spokesman Knut Morten Johansen said he couldn’t comment on what went on in the mediator’s room, “but we feel an incredible disappointment.” Torbjørn Lothe, who leads labour negotiations for NHO Luftfart, acknowledged that the strike “in the short term creates big problems for travelers” and sets off “ripple effects” for many other companies that do business with SAS.

“But the (pilots’) demands have been impossible for SAS to accept,” Lothe said. “I’m extremely sorry that it wasn’t possible to find a solution.”

Jan Levi Skogvang of the Parat union told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the pilots’ demands for more predictable work schedules were not met, “but it wasn’t just that.” Pilots’ representatives don’t think their pay demands are too high, since pilots accepted pay freezes and cuts when the airline was ailing financially. They now think it’s only fair that they should earn earn more than the roughly NOK 90,000 (USD 11,000) they’re now paid on average per month.

Passengers eligible for refunds
SAS has said earlier that passengers whose flights were cancelled can apply for refunds. Norwegian consumer protection regulations also give passengers the choice between getting their money back, rebooking to other flights if possible, or traveling at a later point in time.

Passengers on flights that are not cancelled but delayed by more than five hours can also choose between refunds, rebookings or travel at a later date. Passengers can also expect the airline to provide food and a hotel if stranded by the strike.

All passengers were advised to keep in contact with the airline and check updates on its website. If no messages have arrived regarding cancellations, passengers are expected to head for the airport and attempt to check in as usual. Around 30 percent of SAS flights were still due to operate as of Friday morning.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund