Why Does SAS Have A Base At London Heathrow?

The European airline industry has a number of carriers that have bases outside their home country. These are typically in the low-cost domain, such as British budget airline easyJet’s new Berlin Brandenburg base. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as Scandinavian Airlines’ base at London Heathrow. But why does SAS have this base?

SAS Ireland Airbus A320neo London Heathrow
SAS’s Heathrow base is home to six Irish-registered A320neos. Photo: Jake Hardiman | Simple Flying

Home to an Irish subsidiary

The need for SAS to have a base at London Heathrow is one that arose four years ago. In 2017, the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish flag carrier announced that it would be setting up an Irish flag carrier, known as Scandinavian Airlines Ireland Ltd (SAIL). While its headquarters are situated in Dublin, it opted to base its flight operations at London Heathrow.

SAS’s Irish subsidiary belongs to the same frequent flyer program as its parent company – EuroBonus. However, on an operational level, its controllers can distinguish SAS Ireland flights by their ‘Spinnaker’ callsign, and SL as the prefix to their flight numbers. Meanwhile, mainline SAS flights use ‘Scandinavian’ and SK respectively for these aspects.

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SAS Ireland Airbus A320neo
SAS Ireland’s launch took place over a month later than planned. Photo: Luc Verkuringen via Flickr

The airline’s staff are not employed by SAS itself, but rather by an aviation recruitment agency called CAE. This drew criticism from groups such as Svensk Pilotförening, a union for Swedish pilots. This collective asserted that the new carrier’s operational structure violated the existing labor agreements in place at the time.

The launch of the airline’s flights in late 2017 was also not free of negative publicity. Having initially planned to commence operations on November 1st of that year, delays to aircraft deliveries pushed this date back. SAS Ireland eventually operated its first flight on December 20th, 2017, with a service from Copenhagen to London Heathrow.

What planes does SAS Ireland fly?

The Airbus A320neo is a popular aircraft in the mainline Scandinavian Airlines fleet. Similarly, SAS Ireland’s operational makeup also reflects a penchant for this design. According to Planespotters.net, SAS Ireland currently has six A320neos available.

SAS Ireland Airbus A320neo London Heathrow
EI-SIB has since returned to the main SAS fleet as SE-DYD. Photo: Jake Hardiman | Simple Flying

While these aircraft wear the same livery as SAS’s A320neos, their Irish registrations set them apart. They are prefixed with ‘EI,’ rather than ‘OY’ (Denmark), ‘LN’ (Norway), or ‘SE’ (Sweden). However, they do uphold the SAS tradition of being named after Vikings.

The SAS Ireland fleet is a young one, with the six aircraft sporting an average age of just 2.9 years old. It has also featured a further three previous aircraft that have since returned to the mainline SAS fleet. Owing to the current downturn in European air travel, five of SAS Ireland’s six 180-seat A320neos are currently parked.

Also formerly based in Spain

Although London Heathrow is SAS Ireland’s only current base, it has also previously stationed aircraft in Málaga, Spain. It launched operations from the Costa del Sol slightly later than with Heathrow, beginning in the spring of 2018.

SAS Ireland Airbus A320neo
SAS Ireland also used to have a base in Spain. Photo: Mike Burdett via Wikimedia Commons

However, this was a venture that lasted just two years. In April 2020, with airlines scrambling to cut costs amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, SAS Ireland opted to close its Málaga base. According to the Irish Times, this left 80 employees at risk of losing their jobs, although Spanish law did provide a level of employment protection.

Overall, SAS Ireland will be hoping that it can re-activate as many of its Heathrow-based aircraft and crew as possible over the summer. Next time you’re on an SAS A320neo flying to or from the British capital, be sure to look out for the Irish registration!

Did you know about Scandinavian Airlines Ireland and its base at London Heathrow? Perhaps you’ve even been on a flight operated by SAS’s Irish subsidiary? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.