UPDATED: Marathon mediation between Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and its pilots was extended for the third time on Saturday, with a new settlement deadline set for noon on Monday (July 4). It’s the third extension this week, with SAS flights expected to keep operating as scheduled unless airport congestion and conflicts elsewhere force cancellations.
The latest extension is widely viewed by labour experts as a good sign, as it indicates willingness to avoid a strike on both sides. “There are complex questions that should be resolved,” Norway’s state mediator Mats Wilhelm Ruland told reporters gathered outside the scene of the difficult talks in Stockholm earlier last week. “We are working intensely to find a solution. These are all professional partners.”
The leader of SAS’ negotiating team, Marianne Hernæs, initially said that mediation in Norway would continue for another three days, until midnight Friday. That deadline was then extended until 11am on Saturday (July 2), only to be extended again until noon on Monday. Hernæs has said that “these are serious issues for SAS and for its customers.”
The Norwegian pilots’ unions in Norway had initially warned it would pull nearly 900 pilots off the job on June 29, just as the busy summer holiday season is beginning. That would spoil travel plans for an estimated 45,000 passengers every day. Other conflicts already are, most recently because of strikes at the main airport in Paris and chaotic conditions at other European hubs caused by a lack of ground crews and staffing at security checkpoints.
SAS’ pilots in Scandinavia, meanwhile, have strongly objected to how the airline’s management has split up the company into new operating units that have been hiring non-Scandinavian pilots willing to work for lower pay and fewer benefits. SAS veteran pilots had been complaining since last year and were threatening to strike from midnight last Tuesday, claiming Scandinavian workplace principles are more important than their own jobs or the airline itself.
“We won’t sacrifice the Scandinavian model to save a company,” claimed the leader of SAS’ pilots in Norway, Roger Klokset, on Tuesday afternoon, even though he knows the pilots’ strike can force the airline into bankruptcy. Klokset leads the Norwegian SAS Pilots union (NSF) and was in battle mode.
“We can’t live with working for a company that doesn’t behave itself, and that won’t follow ethical guidelines and standards for how things are done in Scandinavia,” Klokset told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
SAS has warned that a strike would result in the cancellation of at least 76 percent of all SAS flights leaving Norway daily, and at least as many due to arrive in Norway. The strike seemed timed for maximum effect, beginning during the first week of summer holidays when hundreds of thousands of Scandinavians are flocking to aiports to take off for long-awaited trips after the Corona crisis.
The pilots acknowledged that their strike can also jeopardize their own jobs, especially given SAS precarious financial situation, “but we won’t sacrifice the Scandinavian model to save the company,” Klokset said. He and his colleagues are worried about how working conditions in the entire airline branch are under severe pressure.
“Job security for our (union’s) members is no longer tied to SAS as a company, given how SAS is run today,” Klokset told NRK. “It’s tied to their experience and competence and that people must be able to fly from Point A to Point B in Scandinavia in the future, too.”
A strike would hit SAS hard, costing up to NOK 100 million a day, according to some analysts. While pilots claimed SAS’ new management is hiring new pilots at lower pay in new subsidiaries SAS Link and SAS Connect, SAS management claimed the pilots were trying to acquire veto rights over how the company is run. SAS’ new chief executive has also warned that the pilots can force the airline into bankruptcy.
Four pilot unions are involved in the negotiations and mediation, operating under the umbrella union SAS Pilot Group (SPG). Klokset claimed he sympathized with all the people affected and how long-planned trips and holidays may still be spoiled by a strike. “I think about all the passengers hit by this at the start of the first real summer holidays for three years,” Klokset claimed, “but we think its extremely distressing that SAS management has put us in this situation. We don’t want anything other than a solution to this conflict.”
SAS management has claimed much the same over the past several months. The airline is trying to recover from two years of Corona groundings. The airline’s largest owners continue to be the Swedish and Danish governments, which have offered varying degrees of financial support. Denmark has offered the most, not least since SAS is the major tenant and operator at Copenhagen’s airport.
Norway sold out of SAS several years ago and has turned down appeals to inject more fresh capital and become an owner again. Last week, however, the Norwegian government announced it would consider turning debt into equity, perhaps leaving it with an ownership stake in the airline once again.