On January 13, an SAS A330 pulled into the gate at the Bradley Terminal in Los Angeles like most other days. The difference this time, however, was that it had arrived from Copenhagen instead of Stockholm, the city it had served from LA for the past few years. This return to Copenhagen marks the airline’s first nonstop flight in that market since 1994. As usual, it brought out dignitaries to celebrate the occasion. That meant I had the chance to sit with Max Knagge, General Manager of the Americas for the airline, to catch up on what’s been going on.
Max and I last spoke two years ago in this Cranky Flier Interview episode, and much has changed since then. Most notably, Norwegian’s fortunes have turned and it has pulled out of all long-haul flying in Copenhagen and Stockholm. That seems like a boon for SAS, but Max was more cautious.
He explained that while “competition and market conditions change over time, and sometimes other carriers decrease, we also see an increase from other carriers, so it’s constantly shifting.” That being said, he didn’t deny that there was benefit. “Obviously if one of our main competitors pulls down capacity, we can expect to see some positive effects.”
I asked if he expected SAS to grow because of Norwegian’s pull-out. He wouldn’t ascribe any changes to that specifically, but he was excited about the airline’s A321LR. That is allowing SAS to fly Boston-Copenhagen year-round thanks to its lower capacity which better matches winter demand. He wouldn’t commit to any further growth, but he did note that this airplane “could” enable new routes to either new destinations on the east coast of the US or new destinations from the US to smaller cities in Scandinavia.
While the Los Angeles to Copenhagen flight isn’t growth — it was actually a capacity cut because the day after the inaugural it started being flown with an A340-300 instead — it is a change, and I was curious to understand why it happened. Max explained it this way.
Looking at how demand has changed over time, the Stockholm audience is there from a point-to point-perspective… but we can also see that it’s kind of seasonal. Looking at Copenhagen being our major hub in Scandinavia, we have much more connections, much more destinations to offer. It just increases the relevance for this market.
Connections, eh? Well, I can understand that being particularly useful in the winter when, as Max acknowledged, Stockholm may not have much demand. But I wanted to know which cities were getting connections. Of course, Stockholm and Oslo will see a fair number of connections, — Max claimed that even with the Copenhagen stop, SAS is still quickest way from LA to Stockholm — but he also pointed out secondary cities like Bergen, Gothenburg, and Stavanger in Scandinavia as being strong. Further, northern European cities including Hamburg and Berlin do well, but then there was a surprise.
Further south, more seasonal routes, for instance, Beirut has come up as a popular destination… [from the US].
Really? That made me head straight to Great Circle Mapper.
Sure enough, going via Copenhagen adds only 10nm to the nonstop great circle route.
Lastly, I asked Max about climate change. After all, Greta Thunberg is from one of SAS’s home countries, and the impact of so-called “flight shaming” has been felt most strongly in Scandinavia. So was this causing problems for SAS?
For Max’s domain here in the US, it hasn’t been an issue. As he noted, “if you look at airport stats in Sweden, you can see that travel is down, but it’s mostly domestic and short-haul where you can use other means of transportation.” From a US perspective, he confirmed that SAS hasn’t “really seen an impact.”
That being said, he was quick to point out that for SAS, “sustainability is really important, and it’s really high on our agenda.” The airline is doing all the usual things like using biodegradable utensils and things like that, but there were two additional pieces of information I didn’t know.
First, SAS made a commitment to buy carbon offsets for all of its EuroBonus frequent flier program members. That apparently accounts for 40 percent of passengers. And second, SAS sells biofuel as an ancillary service. If you want to buy biofuel that will equal the amount of fuel required to transport you on your trip, it’s right there with bag fees and insurance.
As Max headed out to shake hands, greet passengers, and give a speech, I mentioned how the gate area looked to be filling up. He flashed a pleased look on his face and said that business class was full — as it usually is — but even coach only had a few empty seats. For a January day, that’s a pretty good outcome.