The furious chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) didn’t mince words when he met reporters in Stockholm on Monday, just after SAS pilots in Norway, Sweden and Denmark went ahead with their long-threatened strike. “We are really devastated,” declared Anko van der Werff, calling it “shameful” that the pilots are ruining summer travel plans for tens of thousands of SAS passengers. Striking pilots disagree.
“This is, of course, really bad news … primarily for our passengers,” said the SAS boss who was unable to reach a settlement with pilots unhappy about how SAS management has restructured the company into new operating units that aren’t paying pilots as much as they received before the pandemic.
“This was supposed to be the summer (when) everbody was looking forward to travel again,” van der Werff continued. “It’s also bad news for the company. There are many people in the company (who) do not want to go on strike, (who) want to look after our customers.” He noted how SAS, like many other companies, has suffered through “the worst pandemic of our lifetime” and “received lots of taxpayers’ money.”
“I really find it shameful that this is the way the pilots choose to repay the generosity and the patience that all of the (Scandinavian) countries have had over the last few years with the company.”
The governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark all provided capital and state-guarantees for loans to keep the airline out of bankruptcy, and even to fly necessary domestic routes at highly subsidized fares. While some pilots were retained and others temporarily laid off, though, some lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Many pilots have had to reapply for their jobs in SAS’ newly formed operating units, in competition with other non-Scandinavian pilots willing to work for lower wages. That angered pilots organized in various pilots’ unions in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. After marathon negotiating sessions that were extended three times hit a final noon deadline on Monday, they called a strike that’s pulling 900 SAS pilots out of the cockpit.
“We had ambitions of getting secure jobs and contributing to SAS Forward (one of the new operating units), but we did not succeed,” one of the pilot union bosses, Martin Lindgren, told reporters. “We blame SAS. SAS didn’t want a settlement. SAS wanted a strike.”
SAS’ negotiating leader Marianne Hærnes disupted that, claiming that the pilots got their jobs back, but not in the parent company, and would not accept the “compensation and flexibility” that SAS offered.
The strike will force cancellation of around 250 SAS flights every day just as summer holidays are getting underway. Some flights were still taking off on Monday, but unionized pilots will gradually be called off the job when they arrive back at their home base. Most all SAS flights are due to be cancelled within the next 24 hours.
Around 45,000 SAS travelers will be affected. Strikes and the costs they can incur for passengers are generally not covered by travel insurance, but SAS remains obligated to try to arrange alternative transportation on the first available flights. Since SAS dominates the market in Scandinavia along, though, with most international and intercontinental routes out of its hubs in Copenhagen and Stockholm, it won’t be easy to arrange alternative transportation.
Passengers are left with the options of changing the dates of their trips until after the strike ends, or getting their money back and arranging their own transportation to their destinations. The demand for passenger assistance is expected to be massive. SAS and Norway’s public agency in charge of airports, Avinor, were setting up a special waiting area at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen on Monday, “to help people who can’t travel home, people from abroad and those who’ll be losing their flight connections onwards,” Avinor spokesman Øystein Løwer told news bureau NTB. It won’t be possible, however, to rebook SAS tickets at the airport.
Passengers advised to wait for a message from SAS
Around 70 flights had already been cancelled from Oslo by mid afternoon. Norway’s consumer affairs council was advising those holding SAS tickets to wait with arranging alternative transport themselves until they receive confirmation from SAS that their flight is indeed cancelled. SAS is then obligated to offer various alternatives available, including rebookings. Passengers also must be offered food, drink, transport and overnight accommodation if they must wait a long time for the next available flight.
“If you have to pay for some of that yourself, you can demand refunds of your expenses in addition to standard compensation,” Thomas Iversen of Norway’s consumer council (Forbrukerrådet) told state broadcaster NRK. He stressed that consumers best protect their rights if they wait for SAS to make arrangements. “Passengers take an economic risk if they book their own alternative transportation and pay for it,” Iversen cautioned.
If SAS fails to get its passengers to their destinations, passengers can then book themselves into a hotel and demand refunds later, he added. Passengers in Norway were also being urged to log into SAS websites at either sas.no or flysas.com, for more information on their specific flights. There were likely to be long waiting times on telephone lines.