The Air Greenland Feature Part 1: A Look Back At Their History…
LONDON – Air Greenland is not just an airline. They represent the critical infrastructure needed to keep the country of Greenland running.
In this three-part article we will look at the airline’s history, its recent milestone of receiving a brand new Airbus A330-800neo and what CEO Jacob Nitter Sørensen has to say about the current environment of the airline.
Looking back at her story…
Rewind 62 years (at the time of writing, of course!). Air Greenland was founded as Grønlandsfly back in 1960, with the airline initially operating on Catalina seaplanes.
The carrier was involved in providing logistics for mining companies and for American radar bases in Greenland. Such first flights of this type were operated by DHC-3 Otters and Sikorsky S-55 helicopters chartered by the airline from Canada.
By 1965, after crashes of its PBY Catalinas and DHC-6 Twin Otters causing them to be used on domestic routes, the airline introduced the Douglas DC-4 and Sikorsky S-61 helicopters.
During the 1970s, the airline switched from the DC-4 to the DC-6 and focused its business more on supporting the mining areas of Greenland with the purchase of five more S-61 helicopters.
It also saw purchases for the Bell 206 helicopter and things started to intensify operationally when Grønlandsfly received a contract from the Danish government to fly reconnaissance missions over the sea ice around Greenland.
At the end of that decade, the airline was carrying around 60,000 passengers a year. In 1979, the airline opened its first international route, which was a rotation between Nuuk and Iqaluit, Canada.
Into the 80’s…
In the 1980s, Greenland-based aviation changed drastically. For the better. After the establishment of Greenland’s self-government, short take-off and landing sites could be built in Nuuk, Ilulissat and Kulusuk.
As a result of this expanded infrastructure, the capacity on offer increased, so Grønlandsfly acquired DHC-7s, which enabled the airline to fly in inclement weather and handle the increase in capacity.
In 1981, the first route to Iceland was opened, initially connecting Kangerlussuaq, its main hub, with Reykjavik Airport.
Such a route opening by Grønlandsfly was important to provide a competitive advantage over legacy airline Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and Icelandic airline Icelandair on their Keflavik-Copenhagen route.
In the late 1980s, Grønlandsfly continued to grow, employing over 400 people and carrying more than 100,000 passengers a year.
The beginning of the 1990s offered a bit more struggle than the successes they had experienced in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
A recession hit the Greenlandic economy, causing many mining activities to stop. But therein lay an opportunity.
Other short take-off and landing airports were built within Sisimiut, Maniitsoq, Qaarsut, Upernavik and Aasiiat airports, allowing Grønlandsfly to purchase a fifth Dash 7.
This enabled the airline to offer service to all major cities in Greenland for the first time since its inception in the 1960s.
Towards the end of the decade things definitely picked up again.
This was caused by the introduction of their Boeing 757-200 in May 1998, which allowed the airline to start a direct Kangerlussuaq-Copenhagen route direct, avoiding the middlemen of subsidiary companies and also a stopover within Iceland.
By 1999, the airline was carrying a staggering 282,000 passengers, almost triple the number at the end of the previous decade.
The new millennium…
As the airline entered the 2000s, there was a structural shift within the company. CEO Peter Fich was fired from the company for failing to strike a balance between Greenland’s Home Rule for local services and the board’s expectations for expanded tourism.
His successor, Finn Øelund, was responsible for a loss of 30 million DKK due to unprofitable services and summer strike fever.
In addition, Post Greenland has transferred their lucrative postal contract from Grønlandsfly to Air Alpha Greenland.
In this there was a major setback from Grønlandsfly, where the company managed to reverse decisions made under Home Rule and in April 2002 rebranded itself to the brand we now know as Air Greenland.
In 2003, Øelund resigned, later replaced by Flemming Knudson.
A route from Copenhagen to Akureyri, Iceland was opened under his tenure, but was discontinued after six years due to unprofitability.
However, SAS removed Greenland services from its route network, allowing Air Greenland to add a second Airbus A330-200 aircraft to its fleet.
Nonetheless, SAS brought the route back in the peak periods of 2007 and ended it again in 2009.
As a result of SAS’ withdrawal, Air Greenland was able to contract with the US Air Force for passenger services from Thule Air Base, providing the airline with another revenue stream.
The contract began in 2004 and was extended for a further five years in 2008.
By 2006, the airline Air Alpha acquired Greenland, a helicopter operator, using the purchased Bell 222 helicopters for passenger transfers.
Knudson then left the company in 2007 and moved to Royal Greenland where CEO Michael Binzer took over and was responsible for the Qarsoq 2012 plan.
Qarsoq’s 2012 plan aimed to take the airline towards greater commercialization and self-sufficiency, which also led to SAS announcing the sale of its stake in the airline.
In October of this year, the airline began direct flights to Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
However, this was short-lived due to a strike by Air Greenland employees, which resulted in a slump in ticket sales and the subsequent closure of the route.
At the end of 2009, the airline carried 399,000 passengers, again a significant increase compared to the late 1990s.
The last decade…
In the 2010s, the airline suspended flights from Narsarsuaq to Copenhagen. However, an expansion was still pending.
There was much talk at the time that Air Greenland would need to operate flights to Reykjavik Airport from Nuuk to combat market share acquisition by Icelandair, which was already operating flights to Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Ilulissat and other destinations.
After the Maarmorilik mines reopened in November 2010, Air Greenland was able to resume some mine flights with Bell 212s from Uummannaq heliport.
By 2011, the airline sold its last Twin Otter to what is now subsidiary Norlandair in exchange for cash and a quarter stake in the company.
In 2012, the airline resumed services to Iqaluit, but from 2012 to 2013, the airline only saw a total increase in passenger numbers of four passengers compared to previous years.
The route was then closed again until 2015. In July of the same year, Air Greenland became a member of the European Regions Airline Association.
By 2016, the airline sold its 50 percent stake in Arctic Umiaq Line, a subsidized ferry service.
And that is the remarkable history of the airline, which has documented remarkable growth over the past six decades.