‘Bloody day’ for workers at SAS

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Already laid-off employees at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) in Norway faced a tough choice this week. SAS management is asking them to either quit immediately, in return for some travel privileges and a chance to be rehired later, or hang on for the duration of their notice of termination and then cut ties to the airline.

The vast majority of SAS flights remain grounded, and flight attendants face permanent grounding as well. PHOTO: SAS

“It was a bloody day,” Nina Pedersen, leader of the largest SAS flight attendants’ union in Norway, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) after a meeting on Monday with SAS’ affected employees in Norway. Pedersen’s organization NKF (Norsk Kabinforening) had to present and discuss the severance terms negotiated with SAS.

They’re aimed at cushioning what otherwise is a hard landing for those making up the 350 full-time job equivalents that SAS must cut in Norway alone. In addition come looming job losses in Sweden, Denmark and other countries where SAS has had employees. Like other airlines all over the world, SAS is struggling to survive after the Corona virus crisis halted most air travel and grounded the majority of its fleet. Some flights are due to start up again later this month but for now, SAS is only running limited domestic routes in Norway.

SAS management followed through late Friday on its plans to terminate hundreds employees both in Norway and in other countries. The airline originally warned that 1,300 full-time jobs could be lost just in Norway, but it’s unclear whether that number still applies. This first phase has also included offers of severance packages for those with the most seniority in SAS, and their response will determine how many other SAS workers will lose their jobs.

‘Very demanding’
“We have tried to settle on many proposals with SAS,” Pedersen told DN. “It’s been very demanding because of the unusual situation we’re in. No money can be found for extraordinary offers beyond what we’ve settled on here, and then we just have to follow the normal (state) rules for terminations.”

The offers presented hinge on the length of various employees’ notice of termination period (called oppsigelsestid in Norwegian). It can range from one to three months for the youngest employees with lowest seniority, with those agreeing to leave immediately being offered some priority if SAS can start rehiring as flights resume. Those volunteering to quit will also be offered airline tickets at very low fares and be placed for the next three years on a list of SAS employees who may be rehired at the same levels of pay and working conditions.

“The airline is at least giving them the possibility to return to work under the same terms they have today, if the need arises,” Pedersen told DN. “I feel strong empathy with those who must leave us, and hope that SAS survives and that large portions of of our corps will be back on board next summer.”

Pilots working only 30- to 50 percent
Nils Kristian Lie, a lawyer specializing in labour law at Oslo law firm Ræder, criticized the terms of SAS’ offer to the flight attendants, however. He claimed it was “unusual” to offer alternatives to a termination notice period, during which employees continue to be paid. SAS employees affected “would be swapping their rights that provide money into their accounts for the possibility that there may be work for them in the future,” Ræder told DN, “but they already have that right for a year after termination.”

Only around 200 flight attendants with the longest seniority are still working at SAS in full-time positions. SAS’ pilots have opted for another solution of sorts to help keep more of them in the cockpit. Many are working in reduced positions of just 30- to 50 percent. All pilots who flew SAS long-distance routes have been laid off, as have SAS’ youngest pilots with lowest seniority.

Pedersen noted, however, that “the pilots have a very different sort of work and much higher pay. They can’t be compared with our situation.” An SAS spokesman declined comment on the temination offers for flight attendants, other than to stress that the airline has gone through “thorough processes” with its employees’ labour organizations and will then follow up with each individual employee.

Norway welcome back as an investor
SAS management has stated that it can take around two years before airline traffic has returned to 2019 levels. DN reported late last week that SAS has seen its cash holdings dive by at least NOK 5 billion, it logged huge losses from February through April, and CEO Rickard Gustafson thinks the governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark must save the airline from being grounded permanently.

That can include Norway returning as a shareholder in SAS through a new share issue, after the Norwegian government sold off its remaining stake in SAS in the summer of 2018. SAS management is currently having what DN called “intense discussions” with the Swedish and Danish governments (which still hold 29 percent of SAS together), and Gustafson is open for Norway investing in the airline again, too.

“It’s very odd to lead an airline that’s grounded,” Gustafson said when the airline released its latest dismal results in late May. “We’re supposed to be flying, and part of the national economies.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund