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A SAS air hostess serving passengers snacks in the 1950s.
A SAS air hostess serving passengers snacks in the 1950s.

Aviation

1950s: The Great Sandwich War

When SAS encountered resistance from other airlines over its food service in economy class, the airline found a loophole. It was shaped like a sandwich.

SAS was the first airline to introduce a tourist class on its transatlantic flights, in 1952, in an effort to attract more customers. The cheaper tickets worked, and in 1958, the airline industry added another travel class: economy. The new, no-frills class was initiated and carefully standardized by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

One element of travel that had been downscaled from the business class experience had to do with food and drink, something SAS had always excelled in. While cooking food on an airplane wasn’t possible, SAS had always had experienced chefs onboard to carve the meat, arrange the dishes, and help with the serving – in business class.

With the arrival of the cheaper classes where food wasn’t free anymore, SAS offered sandwiches for sale, but they weren’t very popular. In fact, they were so unpopular that SAS had to throw away lots of sandwiches after the flights.

In 1957, IATA met in Paris to set standards for the new economy class to be introduced six months later. The group wanted to set guidelines for what the airlines were allowed to serve passengers. The two-day conference ended in an agreement that a sandwich was a reasonable meal, as long as it was “simple, cold, and inexpensive.”

The American airlines insisted on offering American-style closed and simple sandwiches. Pan Am told the New York Times in March 1958 that it would abide by the IATA rules and serve “fresh and tasty” sandwiches with cold roast beef, chicken, ham, cheese, tuna, and egg salad. TWA had the same selection, but it removed the crust.One of the smørrebrøds onboard.

SAS?

The airline decided to turn the situation to its advantage. In SAS economy class, passengers almost had an all-you-can-eat buffet of smørrebrød, the open-faced sandwiches popular in Scandinavia. SAS had 16 different variations and, to quote the Times, would “do something fancy with it, such as arranging it with a rosette, with perhaps a little pickle and radish added.”

An SAS spokesman was quoted as saying, “Since European loaves are a little smaller than American, we will offer each passenger three sandwiches [free of charge]. Of course, you can’t eat an open sandwich with your hand, so we will give you a knife and fork.”

Naturally, customers loved the idea, and just as naturally, competitors hated it and tried to shoot it down. American airlines, especially Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Pan Am, objected, claiming that it gave SAS and the other European airlines an advantage.

Surely it was a competitive advantage, too, or SAS wouldn’t have taken out ads that said, “On our planes you won’t find rubbery indigestibles wrapped in cellophane.” The ads featured photos of its fancy sandwiches next to the American competitors’ more modest and, yes, cellophane-wrapped sandwiches.

That didn’t go down well with the Americans, who threatened to withdraw SAS’s traffic rights. TWA made an official complaint to IATA, which resulted in a $20,000 fine for SAS. However, the entire spectacle turned out to be such a huge PR win for SAS that the company paid the fine almost gladly. Then it ran ads that said that SAS would rather pay a big fine than lower its service standards.

In the end, SAS was allowed to continue serving smørrebrød, provided that the garnishing didn’t cover the entire slice of bread. At least 2.5 square centimeters of the bread had to remain visible. 

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