On March 14th of next year, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) will begin flying to LAX for the first time in 20 years. While a new international route is generally not a huge deal at LAX, there is something special about an SAS return. There are few airlines that have such a unique connection to Los Angeles as does SAS.
SAS first started flying back in 1946 as a clunky partnership between one airline from Denmark, one from Norway, and one from Sweden. The goal was to coordinate international traffic. This went on for a few years before the airlines merged in 1951, including another Swedish carrier in the mix. The end result was an airline owned roughly half by the Swedes, a quarter by the Danish, and a quarter by the Norwegians. Each stake within each country was owned half by the government and half by the public. Was this an insanely complex ownership structure? Sure was, and it still is. That’s one of the reasons SAS has struggled over the last few years.
Back in the day, however, SAS was quite the pioneer. Less than a decade after launch, regular scheduled Los Angeles service began from Copenhagen on November 16, 1954 using a DC-6B. This marked the first regular commercial use of the polar route. The leg between LA and Winnipeg was no big deal, but just imagine flying the leg over to Søndre Strømfjord in Greenland. This really was an impressive feat. SAS had to make sure that its aircraft could operate in such frigid temperatures. It also had to develop a compass that would work at such a high latitude. Further, it needed to have maps created for navigation all the way up there. In a literal sense, this was uncharted territory.
In fact, this was considered so momentous that a large rock was decorated to celebrate the event. That rock sat outside the Bradley Terminal on the arrivals level for many years until it was relocated to the Flight Path Museum on the south side of the airport. It still sits there today. This photo is courtesy of the Flight Path.
The polar route to Copenhagen paid off handsomely as the rich and famous used SAS to get to Europe faster. Eventually, Los Angeles started receiving SAS jets instead. It was 1969 when the connection between Los Angeles and SAS took a dark turn. A DC-8 operating as SAS flight 933 crashed in the middle of the Santa Monica Bay on final approach into LAX.
On January 13 of that year, the DC-8 named Sverre Viking left Copenhagen bound for Seattle as SAS flight 933. After an uneventful stop, it continued on to Los Angeles with 9 crew and 36 passengers (quite the light load). It was a rainy evening in LA (rumor has it that used to happen with some regularity), and airplanes were landing to the east. When the gear was dropped, one of the lights failed to turn green confirming that it was locked and ready. The result was that the pilots took their eyes off flying the airplane. Six miles west of LAX, the DC-8 hit the water while they were fixated on the landing gear light. Fifteen lives were lost.
This didn’t prevent SAS from flying to Los Angeles. The airline continued on, using larger airplanes as the years went on. Eventually, a DC-10 was used on the route. One of these DC-10s provided me with my first-ever Intercontinental flight. The year was 1985.
In later years, SAS replaced the DC-10 with a 767-300, but the route struggled with profitability. The airline pulled out entirely in 1994, and one of the more storied carriers at LAX had disappeared.
Now, 22 years later, SAS will begin flying to LAX again. This time, it will use A330s to fly to Stockholm, not Copenhagen. The landscape is very different today than it was 20 years ago, with one airline already flying the route. Low cost carrier Norwegian flies three times a week between LA and both Stockholm and Copenhagen during the summer. Presumably SAS is going to try to generate demand via its Star Alliance partner United’s large (albeit shrinking) presence in the region.
It will be nice to see SAS flying overhead again, though no longer with those awesomely distinctive stripes on the belly. Welcome back, SAS. Let’s hope you can find a way to stick around.