Pilots in Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) have not embraced the strike settlement signed between their unions and the airline’s management. They still need to examine and approve the deal that at least temporarily ended their 15-day strike, and if they don’t, they can effectively resume their strike from mid-August.
Union leaders have admitted to Norwegian media that they’re uncertain whether the settlement will be cleared for landing. The mood among pilots gathered in Oslo for a meeting to review the deal late last week was mixed, with some resigned to accepting its terms and others complaining that “we’ve been forced to buy back our jobs.” Many also don’t like how the agreement extends for just over five years, with no chance for renegotiation until 2027.
“Folks are relieved that we prevailed on some of the most important points,” Roger Klokset, who leads one of SAS’ two pilot unions in Norway, told newspaper Aftenposten just before the weekend, “but our members need some days to digest it all and understand what it means for their everyday work over the coming years.”
SAS pilots in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have two weeks from the day they were presented with details of the settlement until they need to digitally vote to approve or reject it. If a majority rejects it, the pilots will no longer have a labour agreement with SAS, and will therefore legally be back in conflict with management. They can then strike again five days later, if no new deal is agreed. That would occur around mid-August.
Asked whether he thinks his members would approve the deal, Klokset responded “I don’t know. We’ve had a mixed response.” Jan Levi Skogvang, leader of SAS’ other pilots union in Norway, confirmed the lack of enthusiasm for the settlement. “It’s difficult to say” what will happen, Skogvang told Aftenposten.
Both men received a standing ovation for their efforts when they met members at the orientation meeting held shortly after the strike ended earlier last week. Many pilots were also happy to get back into the cockpit and start flying, as SAS first tried to bring stranded passengers home and then get all flights back on schedule. Disruption continued through the weekend though, even after the strike that cancelled more than 300,000 flights and cost the airline well over NOK 1 billion.
Pilots have also reportedly objected to several parts of the settlement in Denmark, where newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has reported how some unions are pitted against each other. Union members were presented details of the deal on Thursday, also in Sweden.
While 450 pilots who were laid off during the pandemic will get their jobs back, and the settlement will apply to all pilots regardless of which new unit of the airline they work for, the pilots’ unions lost out on several points. Their work hours will increase, they’ll need to work more in the summer than in the other seasons of the year, they’ll have to take a 5 percent cut in pay and their contract will extend for 5.5 years, instead of just one or two years as is customary in Norway. The longer contract was a victory for SAS management, which has objected to “a strike culture” in the airline that still needs to attract fresh capital from new investors. SAS pilots have gone out on strike three times in the past five years.
Some pilots expressed anger over the deal, with Tom Heradsveit telling Aftenposten that “we were backed up into a corner,” and comparing it to how unions were crushed in the US during the 1990s, after deregulation of the industry led to fierce competition that later came to Europe as well.
“We want clarifications and peace between our employer and us,” said another pilot, Rune Svello, who thinks the pilots have “stretched themselves far” to achieve both. “And I think those elected to represent the pilots have a much broader overview of the situation than I do. Then they need our backing and our help.”
There has, meanwhile, been some signs of public support for the airline, with small shareholders buying stock and driving the share price up during the past two weeks, albeit from very low levels. SAS filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the US Bankrupcty Code the day after the strike began, but now faces demands for compensation from passengers whose flights were cancelled, lawsuits from tour operators and tough competition from upstart airlines that don’t have all the expensive labour contracts SAS has had. The Danish government has expressed willingness to invest more capital in the airline, while the Norwegian and Swedish governments remain skeptical.