75 Years Of SAS: A Look At The Airline’s History

This weekend marked the 75th anniversary of Scandanavian Airlines, or SAS as it is commonly known. Founded on 1st August 1946, SAS is the flag carrier of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. From the pre-jet age to today, SAS has been at the forefront of many aviation endeavors. Here’s a look at the airline’s history.

SAS Airbus A340-300
SAS has become dominant in its home region and made a substantial presence in long-haul markets like the US. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Founding

SAS was founded in 1946 by a merger of three prominent airlines: Danish Air Lines, Norwegian Air Lines, and Swedish Intercontinental Airlines. While the former two were the flag carriers of their nations, Swedish Intercontinental was privately held by the prominent Wallenberg family.

The airline started with a focus on international flights from three countries, giving it a wider network and passenger base. The first transatlantic flight took place on September 17th, operating from Stockholm to New York. This kicked off the airline’s long history of long-haul traffic from the Scandinavian region.

SAS DC-3
SAS’ original fleet included aircraft like the Douglas DC-3 and many more. Photo: Johnny Comstedt via Flickr

SAS expanded its reach into mainline European routes in 1947 with the addition of the AB Aerotransport, the Swedish flag carrier. This allowed for a great expansion of connecting passengers beyond Scandanavia and into continental Europe, an important step in the carrier’s growth.

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North Pole

Looking to fly further within the US, SAS established the first route over the North Pole in 1954. Using a DC-6B, SAS flew from Copenhagen to Los Angeles with two stops in Greenland and Winnipeg, Canada. The route quickly became a success, with increasing frequencies and attracting celebrities thanks to the convenient routing.

By leveraging its European connectivity, SAS also became popular with American tourists flying from the East Coast. With one-stop connections to popular destinations like London and Paris, SAS has made itself another early European hub airline.

SAS DC-7
SAS operated the DC-6 and DC-7 families for its unique transpolar routes. Photo: Lars Söderström via Wikimedia Commons

Soon after, SAS used the newly-established transpolar routes to fly into East Asia. Due to Cold War tensions, the airline could not overfly the Soviet Union to reach destinations like Tokyo. Instead, the carrier flew the DC-7 over the North Pole and made a quick stop in Anchorage, Alaska instead.

Jet age

Like every airline globally, the Jet Age revolutionized travel at SAS. The airline added the Suds Aviation Caravelle and the Douglas DC-8 for its long-haul operations. This drastically cut down flight time for its US and South American routes and opened a wide range of possibilities for the airline.

SAS DC-8
The DC-8 quickly became the most popular aircraft, with SAS flying more of the type than the 747. Photo: Lars Söderström via Wikimedia Commons

The addition of the Boeing 747 in 1971 meant new nonstop routes could be established and passenger capacity jumped drastically. However, despite this, SAS only ever flew 10 747-100s and -200s, preferring the McDonnell-Douglas family of aircraft instead.

At the same time as these advances, SAS also made advances in passenger technology. The carrier became the first to add an electronic ticketing system and even established its own chain of hotels to capitalize on travelers.

Expansion

The 1980s saw the airline go on an expansion streak, buying up stakes in airlines around the globe. Investments included Braathens, Windrøe, minority ownership of Continental Airlines’ parent company, and many more. These continued into the 90s too, with Air Greenland and British Midland Airways also joining the portfolio.

However, these investments led to financial pressure on the airline, and it was considering a merger with KLM, alongside Swissair and Austrian in the early 1990s. This ultimately failed, but SAS pressed on with its ambitions for a global alliance of airlines. This eventually resulted in it becoming a founder of the Star Alliance, of which it remains a part today.

SAS A340-300
SAS had long wanted to create a global airline alliance, purchasing a stake in Continental for the same. Eventually, it founded the Star Alliance. Photo: Adam Moreira via Wikimedia Commons

As the decade progressed, it became clear that SAS had a problem: deregulation. As new low-cost airlines popped up and travel across the EU became seamless, SAS fell at risk of falling behind and racking up big losses. It began axing its non-airline holdings, selling its hotels business in 1992. However, this wasn’t enough.

Cash burn

The early 2000s saw SAS rapidly losing market share to the likes of Ryanair, easyJet, and others. This required the carrier to quickly cut costs to survive, further pushed ahead by the 2008 financial crisis. SAS sold its stakes in airBaltic, British Midland, Spanair, and others to cut expenses and find a path of profitability in the crowded market.

A321LR SAS Scandinavian Airlines
SAS has embarked on a fleet renewal to operate more efficient aircraft in the future. Photo: Airbus

By 2012, the airline began even more aggressive cost-cutting methods to secure further cash support. SAS reduced its workforce, cut salaries, shrunk the fleet, and dropped routes to remain competitive.  Finally, after a decade of tough measures, the carrier turned its first profit in 2015 and continued that streak for four more years.

Today

SAS is a bustling airline today. The airline operates a fleet of 132 aircraft, divided into smaller planes like the CRJ-900, Boeing 737, Airbus A320, and larger widebodies like the A330, A350s, and more. The carrier continues to fly heavily within Scandanavia and Europe but has shrunk its international presence to focus mainly on the US and a handful of Asian destinations.

However, this smaller footprint is aided by the airline effectively having three major hubs in each of its home countries. This means it can operate several routes to each of its popular destinations and maximize demand.

SAS, Airbus A350 delivery
SAS has spoken a lot about a sustainable future and is establishing a new structure to meet its goals. Photo: Airbus

After a tough two years, SAS has doubled down on focusing on sustainability, in line with European requirements. The coming years will see its fleet becoming younger and more efficient, and the airline is planning to cut CO2 emissions by 30% in the coming years. As SAS enters its next evolution, keep an eye out on this historical airline!

What do you think about SAS’ history? Have you ever flown with them and when? Tell us your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

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