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Building future success – meet SAS’ new CEO Anko van der Werff

As the world reopens after Corona, the eagerness to travel, to meet loved ones and explore is being rekindled. But travel patterns and customer behavior are set to change. President & CEO Anko van der Werff joined SAS at a truly interesting time for the aviation industry.

“I feel a sense of privilege. While we are still not out of the woods yet as an industry, we have a chance now to build back better for future generations. We must deal with the aftermath of the crisis, as we had to take on huge debts and make drastic decisions to survive, but we have an opportunity as well. To ensure sustainability at all levels – financial, environmental, and social. That makes me excited about the road ahead,” says Anko.

An obvious change is the soar in digital solutions. We have become eager digital citizens and more often than before we’re asking if business meetings can be replaced by Zoom, Teams and the like – in turn altering the market dynamics. At the same time, new players are entering the market. Overall a powerful blend. 

“We will compete. While we will continue to be the airline of choice for business travelers, we will also see a much more aggressive focus on the leisure segment. After Corona we see the customer mix changing with more leisure and less business travel, and customer behavior will continue to evolve. All this means we must reinvent ourselves to stay ahead.”

A question on many people’s lips is naturally whether customers will notice that there is a new CEO in town. With decades of experience from the airline industry, holding top management positions, what can we expect? 

“SAS is a successful airline and it is important to remember that going into the pandemic, SAS boasted five consecutive years of profit and customer satisfaction was at record high levels. A lot of things have been done extremely well towards our customers. We have great employees who have done a fantastic job, and we don’t want to change what has been done right. So, will customers notice much difference? Hopefully not. But I do bring new perspectives to the table and as with any new coach the team often trains differently, and it can be a kick-start. Certainly, around digital and personalization I want us to move faster and be more customer centric,” says Anko.

Innovation at the core

SAS celebrated 75 years of connecting Scandinavia to the world last year, and innovation has been at the core since the beginning. SAS took off to New York already in 1946 and in 1957 became the first airline with a flight route across the North Pole to Japan, shortening flying time between continents. Furthermore, SAS was the first airline to introduce an electronic booking system for all of its services in Europe, and the first airline in the world to offer passengers wireless internet connections on all of its intercontinental flights.

“SAS has proudly moved Scandinavia since the start of commercial aviation. And as one of the first global industries, airlines introduced distribution through technology early on. However, innovating on top of a legacy structure can be challenging, presenting ‘the handicap of a head-start’, for instance within digitalization and personalization. But we are now at the next round of breakthrough,” Anko states. 

Personalization of add-on products for your journey, building your own necessities and travel view, and harnessing the power of digital delivery are topics close to van der Werff’s heart. 

“You will hear me talking a lot about that in the coming years. We have done great work within digitalization, but I don’t think SAS has used it to the full extent yet, meaning there is significant and exciting potential going forward, putting the customer truly at the center of it all.”

Openness and dialogue

Anko truly lights up when talking about leadership and the road ahead. Naturally, travel restrictions have made it cumbersome to meet and greet across the company, but he has already made several visits to the different parts of SAS – from ground services, to office and support functions, as well as technical and crew bases. Including cabin crew training at Arlanda airport, Stockholm in September, and a scheduled flight simulator training in October! 

One of the great things about an airline, he elaborates, is that each aircraft that takes off has been touched by everyone in the company. Someone recruits and trains crew, buys the planes, loads bags, helps passengers at the gate and on board, manages cargo, handles technical maintenance, fuels the aircraft, sells tickets, and of course eventually flies the plane. Literally everyone is involved in the aircraft taking off – making it the biggest team sports there is, in Anko’s view.

“We need the whole piano to play, the whole team to work together. It starts with understanding people’s jobs and the role they play. I am open and close to people; I walk around and listen. What are people struggling with, are they being heard, are our customers being heard. I guess you could say I have a relationship-based leadership style. Which is also why I make a point of visiting cockpit on as many of my flights as possible.”

Openness and dialogue, also on controversial issues, is a hallmark of SAS’ new CEO. In the fast-paced world of aviation, status quo is not an option. And to define what future success will look like, Anko is looking for the symbiosis that arises from open dialogue and putting different views on the table. 

“Engaging in respectful conversations will bring us forward. I am Dutch and not easily offended, so for me straightforward and direct conversations are more helpful than avoiding controversial topics. And I expect colleagues across the company to do the same – being out there and engaging with different parts of the organization.”

More sustainable travel

We cannot shine light on SAS’ new CEO without touching on the topic of aviation and sustainability – perhaps the most important journey yet. The company has taken on a clear leadership role in this area, with major investments in new, more fuel-efficient aircraft, biofuel investments and a range of adjustments to the offering on board. A simple measure such as ending free food on board, led to a whopping 80% reduction in food waste. Similarly, by increasing focus on pre-order meals, customers can get the food they need and want, without the waste.

“SAS must lead the industry towards more sustainable travel. It is a role I am excited to take on. Air travel allows us to be transported to different parts of the world in hours, to experience people, culture, food, and architecture. When I travel, I feel truly alive. But we must find a sustainable path. As passengers we can do a lot to contribute as well; leave the extra suitcase at home, pre-order your meal, add biofuel to your ticket and focus on what you need, not necessarily what you’re allowed to. This is a mindset change I believe we must all make.” 

But Anko doesn’t just want to change mindsets. Setting out to crack the code on sustainable aviation fuel shortage and price-points is a dream.

“Sustainable aviation fuel is the bridge we need while solutions for electric and hydrogen-based flying are developed and matured. But it is currently being produced at low levels and at high cost. I am thinking about launching an award for solving the sustainable aviation fuel puzzle, and to speed up these efforts. Cracking that code would be fantastic!” 

Anko’s nature is enthusiastic, and the globetrotting background – having lived in multiple countries and traveled the world – leads us to one final question. What is your ultimate travel advice? 

“For business travel, I am disciplined and almost robotic, with the same suitcase pre-packed so that I know what’s in it and save time. Other than that: just enjoy the journey. We have had a lot of bad for a year-and-a-half, so spend the extra night, have dinner, look around you and not on your mobile. And just enjoy!”

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