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June 3, 2011 10:08 pm

A skirmish over Scandinavian skies

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I flew on SAS a couple of times this week and was more saddened than shocked by the experience

It may not have made front-page news in the FT’s Companies & Markets section but Wednesday’s announcement that one of the Nordic region’s niche airlines was placing a sizeable order for a new series of quieter, more fuel-efficient aircraft dealt a further blow to one of Europe’s oldest airlines, and also heralded a reshuffling of the Nordic world’s natural order.

Ten years ago it was a pleasure to board an aircraft belonging to Scandinavian Airlines. The carrier had recently undergone rebranding by Stockholm Design Lab and, for a while, it felt like it was going somewhere. Embracing modern Scandinavian values, the airline got more than just a new coat of paint: the flags of Norway, Denmark and Sweden (the three de facto owners of the airline) on the fuselage were redesigned (albeit not without some controversy), airline staff were put at the heart of an elegant new advertising campaign shot in black and white, and a number of low-cost carriers started swooping in on routes it had long monopolised.

But I flew on SAS a couple of times this week and was more saddened than shocked by the experience. The rickety-looking MD-80 series aircraft was positively knackered – its fittings looked tired and outdated, the seal around the door was yellow and cracked, and the cabin was generally threadbare. The crew were clearly embarrassed by the state of the overall “offer”, and as we pushed back from the terminal at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, bound for Copenhagen, I watched the gleaming new aircraft of low-cost carrier Norwegian weaving around the tarmac. And I wondered if the SAS brand would be around this time next year.

Although the Nordic countries often act as a bloc by voting for each other during the Eurovision Song Contest and sharing embassy space in Berlin, there’s a greater sense of a major carve-up going on – and not just in aviation. As SAS continues to cut services and routes, the Finns and Norwegians are in expansion mode and engineering something of a pincer movement on the Danes and Swedes.

The order for Bombardier’s C-Series aircraft, announced on Wednesday, was placed by a Norwegian leasing company that will put the aircraft into service on routes belonging to affiliated company Malmö Aviation, operating from Stockholm’s Bromma airport. This comes on top of Finnair expanding its routes to Asia, and Norwegian introducing long-haul aircraft to its fleet and in-flight internet on its European routes.

In an era when “flag carriers” are widely seen as outdated, the settling of old scores with a whiff of aviation imperialism seems to be alive and well. Then again, it might be a sign of maturity as the Nordic airlines accept that they can’t be specialists in all areas. Maybe Finland and Norway will emerge as the aviation powers for the entire Baltic region? Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, could focus on what they’re good at, such as developing muscular retail brands, shipping containers around the world and building much-loved toy businesses out of interconnecting plastic blocks. There used to be a great deal of duplication in the goods and services on offer in Copenhagen, Oslo, Helsinki and Stockholm, but a re-ordered region might see greater specialisation than in the past.

Having just finished the ranking for our Monocle Quality of Life city survey (winner to be announced in the coming weeks), one area in which all these capitals are fighting hard to out-do each other is “liveability”. Although each city is clearly coming to terms with the loss of certain industries or the humbling of once great brands, they also see a role for selling their know-how in creating the good life to other countries or at least attracting tourists to sample it.

In Stockholm, large-scale projects are under way to re-route traffic, rethink the harbour, link the north of the city with the south and create tens of thousands of homes in the city centre. An hour’s flying time south, Copenhagen is planning an incineration plant that will also incorporate a ski slope, more trams and subway lines, an enormous new city park designed by architecture firm BIG, and an ongoing clean-up of the harbour to ensure that residents can dive in and cool off safely.

Where Copenhagen might have the edge, however, is in the area of cuisine and generally enviable living. For sure, many cities can look great on a sunny day – but Copenhagen was pretty much unbeatable on Monday as all the local beauties were out on their bicycles, the cafés were packed and the city felt like it was officially kicking off the summer season with the sun on its cheeks and the wind its hair.

After an evening spent dining on the culinary delights at chef Bo Bech’s new-ish restaurant Geist, followed by coffees (and milkshakes) the next morning at Granola, Copenhagen didn’t feel particularly bothered about whether it had an airline to call its own or even a decent airport. Fuelled by pedal power, caffeine and a dose of sunshine, who’d want to leave? Particularly if the next stop on the itinerary was Brussels.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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