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Jan Carlzon Photo: SAS
Jan Carlzon Photo: SAS


1980s: On top of the world

With a new young boss and a focus on people – both travelers and employees – SAS was on top of the world in the 1980s.

The 1980s began in earnest at SAS with the appointment in 1981 of Jan Carlzon as President and CEO. The 39-year-old Swede brought both flair and a hard-work ethos into the company. And he turned SAS into the business airline, with a focus on profitable business class travelers and by extension, providing the best service that money could buy. In short, Carlzon put people first. For business class travelers, this showed itself through superb service and for SAS employees as an opportunity to take control of their jobs.

“I expect a good boss to be able to produce results, not follow instructions,” he was quoted as saying in Dagens Industri, a Swedish business paper. “We’re willing to ignore a few mistakes if they ultimately lead to a better way of doing things.”

And they did. Three years after Carlzon had taken over, Air Transport World, a monthly trade magazine, named SAS Airline of the Year.

The prize jury said, “This year’s winner could also have won several other awards in addition to the grand prize. They could have won the Passenger Service award and our Financial Management award for its best financial result for years, after a time of crisis, and they could have received our Technology Achievement award for their high-­quality planes and maintenance. And finally, there were several reasons to give SAS our Public Relations award for their innovativeness as they’ve pursued dominance in the business traveler segment both in Europe and the US. But instead of giving all those awards to one airline we gave them our grand prize, the Airline of the Year award. It’s obvious that Jan Carlzon’s organization has made miracles with the airline that stood at the brink of bankruptcy just a few years ago.”

Jan Carlzon and Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson at the Airline of the Year award ceremony in 1983. Photo: SASThe turnaround had been truly remarkable, to say the least. When Carlzon had presented his action plan for the airline in 1981, he acknowledged that SAS was in trouble.

“Our fleet is poor, as is our financial situation, but we’ll go out and try to sell SAS to people,” he said. “Never leave a customer unsatisfied, sell SAS at any price.”

He gave the company a new graphic profile, drove through a cabin refresh, added lounges at selected airports, introduced Business class and turned the airline into a Business airline to give it clear – and profitable – focus.

“You can’t compete for every single passenger, you have to focus on one segment,” Carlzon said.

SAS also opened a 24-hour telephone booking service as a new way to reach out to customers.In January 1984, Carlzon traveled to New York to accept the Airline of the Year award. During the press conference, he announced that SAS would be ordering new planes that would better accommodate business travelers’ needs. And in 1986, also during Carlzon’s time at the helm, SAS won the Passenger Service Award from Air Transport World. The airline really was on top of the world.

Text: Risto Pakarinen 

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