An airline industry without airlines? A case study of SAS, sustainable development and communication challenges within the Danish airline industry

Amalie Katrine Koch-Rasmussen & Siw Raagaard Svendsen

Student thesis: Master thesis


Purpose – This research is based on an interest in stakeholder communication, corporate framing and greenwashing within the Danish airline company SAS. The thesis will examine how SAS is influenced by the environmentally sustainable development within the Danish airline industry. Thus, this research sets out to investigate how SAS can strengthen their position of legitimacy in the environmentally sustainable development of the Danish airline industry and become a green alternative to other airlines by responding to the clash between its polluting industry, environmentally sustainable development and consumer awareness, without being accused of greenwashing.

Methodology - With SAS as the point of departure, this thesis employs a holistic single-case study approach. The methods used to collect our data are based on a combination of quantitative and qualitative research material. For our primary data collection, we conducted in-depth interviews with six consumers. For our secondary data collection, we conducted a media content analysis.

Theoretical framework - The theoretical framework is based on acknowledged theories from different academic areas which include theories of stakeholders, framing, legitimacy, greenwashing and issue response strategies.

Analytical framework - Our analytical framework is divided into four parts. Firstly, we seek to examine SAS’ external stakeholders in order to define why consumers can be characterized as one of SAS’ most important stakeholders. Secondly, the thesis examines the way in which SAS frames itself in the attempt to influence consumers’ attitudes towards, and perceptions of, SAS. Thirdly, the thesis examines the risk of SAS being accused of greenwashing. Finally, the thesis examines consumers’ perceptions of which actors are more legitimate than others in terms of commenting on environmentally sustainability and what defines an environmentally sustainable initiative, as well as what types of legitimacy these actors possess. The findings in the thesis are put into perspective in the discussion section of the paper, where ideas for SAS’ forward-looking strategy are presented based on issue response strategies. This is followed by a recommendation to SAS.

Findings - One of the main findings in the analysis is that the frames SAS present about the airline and the frames the consumer present are inconsistent, leading to a communication challenge for SAS. Additionally, the analysis found that consumers perceive the Danish government to be a legitimate contributor to communication regarding environmentally sustainable development and environmentally sustainable initiatives. Another finding is that currently there is only a minimal risk of SAS being accused of greenwashing, because consumers perceive SAS to be legitimate when commenting on environmentally sustainable initiatives. The discussion showed that it would be favorable for SAS to execute an issue response strategy combining a Bridging strategy and an Advocacy strategy.

Conclusion - As a conclusion, we recommend SAS to enhance communication regarding their sustainability program in order to meet consumer expectations and communicate the advantages of choosing sustainable airline tickets instead of conventional airline tickets. Furthermore, we recommend SAS to establish a partnership with the Danish government in order to develop common standard definitions of sustainable flights.

EducationsMSc in Business Administration and Organizational Communication, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2020
Number of pages118