Upwards of 200,000 passengers will be affected this weekend by a widespread pilots strike at Scandinavian airline SAS. The Copenhagen-based airline has been forced to ground more than 1,500 flights from Friday through Sunday after negotiations with pilots unions in Denmark, Norway and Sweden broke down. SAS says it is willing to continue talks but claims meeting the demands of pilots would have “very negative consequences” on the airline’s fortunes.
“It is deeply regretful that the pilot’s strike will have a negative impact on our customers,” commented Karin Nyman, Director of Communications at SAS. “The pilot associations have chosen conflict,” she continued. “Our first priority now is to take care of our passengers and at this moment in time, all SAS employees are doing everything they can to help customers affected.”
Pilot unions have been negotiating with the airline for a new collective bargaining agreement over the last few months but talks initially broke down at the start of April. The call to strike followed several weeks of mandatory meditation that pushed back the possibility of a walk out past the busy Easter holiday period.
While SAS has apparently framed the failed negotiations over salaries, the pilot unions say the dispute is actually about achieving a reasonable work life balance.
“The strike could have been avoided if SAS had shown a real will to meet us. Instead, we meet a SAS management who believes that their employees must accept deteriorated working conditions, unpredictability in planning work hours and insecurity for their own job,” explained Wilhelm Tersmeden, chairman of the Swedish Pilot Association (SPF).
Like pilots at many airlines, Tersmeden says that SAS pilots do not have fixed schedules but instead work a variable pattern that changes from month to month. “Not being able to plan your life is a big strain and we have therefore demanded greater predictability. Everyone who has a family life can imagine how demanding it is to not know when to work,” says Tersmeden.
Making matters worse, SPF also claims that SAS terminated all existing agreements, including seniority, before entering negotiations.
On Friday, SAS says it was forced to cancel more than 670 flights, affecting around 72,000 passengers. An estimated 587 flights will be cancelled tomorrow, disrupting the travel plans of 64,000 passengers. The strikes have hit around 70% of the airline’s schedule, with the remaining 30% operated by SAS Partner airlines.
SAS is currently offering passengers the opportunity to either rebook their travel plans free of charge or cancel their tickets for a full refund. Low-cost competitor Norwegian has reported sold-out flights and tickets prices have risen steeply as demand soars.
A number of international pilot and cabin crew groups have publicly supported the SAS pilot strike, with the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations saying today that no pilot “should accept deteriorating working conditions, unpredictable hours, and a lack of job security.”
Meanwhile, Todd Insler of the United Airlines pilots association said his organisation supported the strike. Insler has written to United management reminding the airline that his pilots will not help break a strike.
And perhaps signalling a widening of the industrial dispute, the SAS cabin crew union have also publicly signalled their support for the strike. For 2018, SAS reported a profit of approximately $221 million.