Society Insights: SAS Manages the Complexity

For the second interview in our Society Insights series, we thought it would be interesting to speak with Søren Lindegaard, Network Manager at SAS Airlines. It’s complex enough to be a Network Planner in one country, but SAS has bases in three different countries!

Sophie: Søren, what makes the challenges of COVID-19 so unique for SAS?

Søren: SAS operates in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and air travel is considered part of Scandinavia’s critical infrastructure. For some of our destinations, air travel is literally the only option. So, while our operations have been greatly reduced, it’s not possible to shut them down completely. That means we have to make careful decisions about every flight.

In addition, each of the three countries has different regulations related to COVID-19. Especially in Sweden, the approach to the pandemic is quite different. So we need to balance our planning to adhere to three different sets of regulations. It can be quite a challenge to match the sometimes-variable demand and supply. And whereas in Sweden, passengers are happy to book a bit more in advance, we’re seeing a lot more last-minute booking in Norway and Denmark.

Sophie: How has your day-to-day worked changed?

Søren: In terms of planning, we normally have solid plans for the months and years ahead. But that’s not possible right now. We’re taking it day-by-day, and updating our plans every week. We’re still doing longer-term planning, but the immediate work is more hectic and requires more flexibility.

It’s also a challenging time to work in this industry. We’re seeing a lot of colleagues lose their jobs, not to mention the news of so many people losing their lives to the virus. The only thing we can do is remain flexible and adaptable to the changes, and do the best we can to support each other.

Sophie: What’s your prediction for how the industry will look in ten years?

Søren: I think business travel will be forever changed, as the entire world is learning that a lot of international business can be conducted online. But events like the Network Planning Society should still be in person, because that face-to-face contact is essential. Also in cases where contracts need to be signed or when meeting new clients, nothing will ever replace face-to-face contact. I don’t expect much to change about leisure travel. People will likely still need to get away, and I’m sure they’ll have a stronger desire to spend time with family once this is all over.

Sophie: What are some of the key things you’ve learned from the crisis?

Søren: We’re re-examining a lot of ‘old truths’. Discovering that the way we’ve always done things isn't necessarily the best way. As we plan departures and routes, we’re finding ways to be more effective and efficient. Most importantly, I think it has taught us that, when the crisis is over, it’s not just a matter of going back to the way we did business in 2019. We’re changing the way we work with operations, the way we train our pilots, and the process for deciding routes. The market will be different, so our approach will need to be different, as well.

Sophie: How can the Network Planning Society and Schiphol help?

Søren: It’s funny: the event in 2020 was the first time I’ve been in the Netherlands. It was so great to meet the people behind all the emails I’ve sent in the past few years. The Society events give me so much more insight into Schiphol’s way of working. The lectures and presentations were very good, and it was great to meet so many of my colleagues from other airlines. It’s really a unique programme, especially for such a large airport.

At the 2021 event, I’d really like to hear more about how the Netherlands is dealing with COVID-19. What the limitations are, how the lockdowns work. Every country is handling the pandemic a little differently, and learning how things are in Holland can be very helpful. Schiphol’s insights into the crisis and the plans for moving the business forward will be really interesting to hear about, and will help us shape our plans as well. It makes sense to look at as many markets as we can, compare what we have in common, and learn from each other. We’ll all have to contribute to rebuilding the industry.

Sophie: What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Søren: Trying to plan the Summer 2021 season and developing a post-COVID transition plan when we really don’t know how long the crisis will last. It will take more than a simple scale-up to get back to normal, and the entire industry will need to work together to make it happen. I assume Schiphol won’t be able to maintain its slot waiver system forever.

Sophie: What would you like to say to your Network Planning colleagues?

Søren: We’re all in this together. In this crisis, we’re not just competitors. We're all facing the same challenges, and we should always keep this in mind. Although the current environment calls for a more tactical focus, there are critical longer-term issues and strategic choices to be made as well.

This crisis is much bigger than an airline’s bottom line. It’s a problem for all of society. So the fixes will have to happen on a society level, not just a business level. There’s no Band-Aid for the impact of COVID-19. We’ll have to look at our industry in terms of critical needs, not just commercial viability. More than ever, it’s not about passengers. It’s about people. That idea is coming into sharp relief now that the holiday season is approaching.

Sophie: Has the crisis sparked new kinds of creativity at SAS?

Søren: Definitely. More than ever, we realise that we are one organisation, and we need to support each other. We meet online and stay connected as much as we can. We have the same goals and are better aligned than maybe ever before. Our connection with operations is stronger and more balanced. We do daily and weekly calls and try to interact as much as we can.

Still, it’s not the same as popping over to someone’s desk to ask a question, or checking in with a colleague who’s under stress. And worst of all, it’s so hard to say goodbye online to a colleague who’s worked at SAS for a long time. At times like those, it becomes so clear that this crisis is having an impact on our emotions and our stress levels, and we need to support each other as much as we can. We try to check in with each other frequently.

Sophie: Will we see you at the 2021 Network Planning Society event?

Søren: Absolutely. Although I’ll miss the face-to-face contact, it’s important to me to connect with my colleagues, even if it’s virtual this year. I’m looking forward to hearing about Schiphol’s plans and gaining insights from my colleagues at other airlines.