Anko van der Werff talks route plans for the new-look SAS

Anko van der Werff talks route plans for the new-look SAS
SAS CEO Anko van der Werff (right) spoke at length about the future of the Scandinavian network carrier at Routes Europe 2024 on 22 April (Image credit: Mark Pilling)

The future for Scandinavia’s flag carrier SAS is looking brighter than it has for years as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy court protection with new shareholders and investors, a fresh strategic plan and a change in airline alliance.

It was strictly standing room only in the modestly sized conference room at the Congress Centre in Aarhus, the Danish ‘City of Smiles’ hosting Routes Europe 2024 on 22 April, as Scandinavia’s most powerful airline leader, Anko van der Werff, the CEO of SAS, addressed delegates.

Airports from each Scandinavian country, plus any destination with an interest in SAS service, were in attendance, seeking to hear first-hand what the strategy for the new airline will look like.

One of the constant questions from airport bosses is how SAS will develop its long-haul routes with the interests of Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm to the fore – and how the carrier will manage its European network.

Arrival in Atlanta

One of the first decisions SAS has made for its long-haul structure is to begin serving Atlanta, the US home base of new SkyTeam Alliance partner Delta Air Lines.

“A surprising addition,” joked van der Werff, the Dutch veteran airline leader who has had spells with KLM, Qatar Airways, Aeromexico and Avianca, before arriving at SAS nearly three years ago to turn around this faltering network player.

On 29 April SAS formally joined SkyTeam, abandoning the Star Alliance, where it was one of the founding members. This process, which will include terminating its codeshare with Star’s United Airlines, is not yet fully mapped out.

“You will see us over time gradually untangling our Star feeds and Star connectivity and you will see us build out with SkyTeam,” said van der Werff.

“In a way it is very simple and somewhat emotional,” he added, especially for customers that have become used to connecting, often to a Lufthansa service, for a quarter of a century via hubs in Frankfurt and Munich.

Under the new shareholding structure of SAS, the Swedish state will no longer be a shareholder in the carrier, whereas the Danish state will.

Does this mean SAS will favour new service out of Copenhagen instead of Stockholm or Oslo?

“The answer is no,” answered van der Werff simply. “I have always found [this question] surprising because do you have to have a state ownership in you to serve your customers? I don’t think so.”

“Oslo is extremely important to us. We have pretty much about 45 per cent of slots there and you’re not going to do away with that,” he noted.

“This morning, I was on a flight from Stockholm to Oslo before connecting here. There are so many connections that we drive from Stockholm to Oslo and then beyond.

“It was good to see. Oslo is a very efficient airport, and I don’t say that because they are here in the room. It just works.

“The same thing with Stockholm. I have consistently said that even if Sweden is not within SAS [as a shareholder], you can’t take SAS out of Sweden,” said van der Werff.

But there will be changes, with some of the “illogical” long-haul routes at Stockholm being axed or not returning.

SAS had been flying wide bodies to several Asian cities from the Swedish capital, but this created a “lot of complexity”, from spare parts to reserve crews and spare aircraft.

SAS still serves three destinations in Asia from Copenhagen – Bangkok, Shanghai and Tokyo – but its inability to overfly Russian airspace prevents anything else to the east. “I would love to do more but right now it doesn’t make any sense,” he stated.

Asked about a destination wish list for SAS, van der Werff was cautious, saying only that he sees “clear ways for us to grow” in the US and Canada.

“The US is about rebalancing. It’s about getting close to Delta and making sure we can step that up over time.”

What is clear is that both Stockholm and Oslo will continue to be connected to New York in addition to Copenhagen.

Furthermore, he noted: “I think there will be a second [daily flight] from Oslo and also there will be a second one from Stockholm.”

The hoped-for signing of transatlantic joint venture deals with its new SkyTeam partners mean such routes make good business sense.

He said that extra services to New York, as mentioned above, arrive “certainly when you get access to those joint ventures, but hopefully before that you will have multiple long hauls from those markets,” said van der Werff.

Copenhagen hub

“But the core of our long haul will be Copenhagen and that is for the very simple reason that when you are so high up in North Europe then the logical hub is in the most southern point because the direction of travel from anyone living in Scandinavia is going to be South,” he explained.

“But there will always be selective and hopefully more long hauls from Gardermoen and Arlanda,” he added.

The carrier is also launching 20 new routes this summer, in another statement of its intention to grow in the right places as it exits bankruptcy protection.

Scandinavia itself has always been a highly competitive market, explained van der Werff, who hopes the new alliance will boost SAS’s position in it home region.

“The transition to Sky will hopefully build us better relationships and have access to joint ventures over time. I think this will add a lot of value to SAS.”

In Sweden, he noted that Ryanair has decided to exit the domestic market again. “They’ve tried but didn’t make it work. I can see why because there’s frankly not much in the Swedish domestic market that works now,” he explained.

Talking about his outlook for 2024, van der Werff said: “I don’t want to jinx it, but things look still healthy for the summer season and long may it last.”

And despite events over the past few years like Covid, Ukraine-Russia, energy prices, high inflation, or Israel-Gaza, what he sees is simply that “people travel”.