Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has cancelled as many as 400 flights this month, either because of a lack of crews to fly them or too few passengers, and now faces a threatened strike by unhappy pilots in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. SAS’ chief executive has warned that the airline may not survive if pilots walk off the job.
“Everyone understands that a strike in any airline will be difficult to tackle after two years with the pandemic and lockdowns,” SAS spokesman John Eckhoff told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week. He confirmed that SAS’ relatively new CEO Anko van der Werff stressed just that in a digital meeting with all SAS employees before the Easter holidays.
The warning comes after the SAS Pilot Group walked out of negotiations with SAS management for a new collective bargaining agreement. They claimed the two sides were too far apart, with VG reporting that a strike looms possibly from mid-May. “We’re being pressured and pressured for more cuts and have nothing more to give,” the leader of SAS’ Norwegian pilots, Roger Klokset, told VG.
“Before the pandemic there were 1,600 pilots in SAS in the Nordic countries,” Klokset said. “Now we’re down to 870. We believe SAS mangement is consciously using the pandemic to fire pilots with full-time positions. They have set up new companies and brought in pilots from abroad who accept completely different terms for pay and benefits. We believe they (SAS leaders) want contract workers whom they can steer to a much higher degree.”
Asked whether SAS is guilty of union-busting, Klokset replied that “we see it as getting rid of organized pilots (who are union members) and bringing in others.” He stressed that not only pay was up for negotiation but working conditions: “We’re being pressured to accept becoming seasonal workers, with traditional duty lists disappearing and where we’re forced to work an extreme amount in the summer, when it’s high season, and then only work part-time in the winter.”
In the weeks since negotiations broke down after just one day, SAS’ financial problems have worsened. DN has reported that the airline’s capital is long gone and money is running out because passengers are returning too slowly after the Corona crisis. A new efficiency program called SAS Forward aims to cut costs by SEK 7.5 billion and reduce SAS’ ever-rising debt. The airline’s owners including the governments of Sweden and Denmark need to pump fresh capital into the airline but have been reluctant to do so until they see signs that the SAS Forward program is working. It was only 18 months ago that both countries provided SEK 12 billion in fresh capital to compensate for Corona-related losses.
A pilots’ strike would clearly jeopardize any financial recovery at SAS and could, argue some, be the last nail in the coffin. Analyst Jacob Pedersen at Sydbank in Denmark told DN that no more state support should be committed until SAS proves itself as being competitive again. “That will force the unions and creditors to find a solution that’s not comfortable, but absolutely necessary.” The pilots unions had no immediate comment.
SAS management is standing by its new structure and demands for more flying time from pilots and more flexible work schedules, while the pilots’ demands would lead to higher costs. The pilots went along with a pay freeze and temporarily working part-time during the Corona crisis, but have twice turned down requests to go along with further efficiency measures.
“No one wants a strike, and the company is working to strengthen its financial position and long-term competitiveness,” Eckhoff told DN. Commentator Thor Christian Jensen wrote in DN on Wednesday that the Danish and Swedish government’s “will never let SAS go bankrupt, because then it would no longer be Scandinavia’s most important airline.”
The drama that has surrounded SAS for years has clearly grown, though, with lots of passengers irritated as well. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported how many including Norway’s former government minister for fisheries, Harald Tom Nesvik, were furious when flights were cancelled during the Easter holidays. He and his wife were told they had to return from France two days earlier than scheduled or pay an extra NOK 16,000 to return on their ticketed departure date. “We viewed that as extortion,” Nesvik told NRK, adding that he finally agreed to fly home on Star Alliance partner Lufthansa, only to miss their connecting flight to Ålesund.
“We think the cancellations can be blamed on the path SAS has chosen, where they used the pandemic to get rid of 560 SAS pilots,” Klokset of the pilots’ unions told NRK. SAS spokesman Eckhoff blames the after-effects of the pandemic.
“We’re struggling with a lack of ground crews, training new employees and security clearances,” Eckhoff said. “It’s a situation we share with airlines all over the world.” He added that the pandemic and now a war in Ukraine has led to Scandinavians traveling much less than earlier.
“We have a workable plan to make SAS a competitive airline again, but it demands that everyone contributes, also the pilots,” Eckhoff said. He issued a strong warning against a strike: “In our view, the pilots don’t understand how serious the situation is. A pilots’ strike now would be a catastrophe and put the entire company and thousands of jobs in danger.”