LONDON – Air Greenland isn’t just an airline. They represent the critical infrastructure that is needed to keep the country of Greenland flowing.
In this three-part feature, we will look at the airline’s history, as well as its recent milestone of receiving a brand-new Airbus A330-800neo, and what CEO Jacob Nitter Sørensen has to say on the current environment of the sector and the airline.
Looking Back At Their History…
Rewind 62 years (At the time of writing, of course!). Air Greenland was founded back in 1960 as Grønlandsfly, with the carrier initially starting out operations with Catalina seaplanes.
The carrier was involved in providing logistics to mining companies and for American radar bases within Greenland. Such first flights of this type were operated by DHC-3 Otters and Sikorsky S-55 helicopters that the carrier chartered from Canada.
By 1965, following crashes of its PBY Catalinas and DHC-6 Twin Otters resulting in them being placed on domestic routes, the carrier then introduced the Douglas DC-4 and Sikorsky S-61 helicopters.
By the 1970s, the airline moved over to the DC-6 from the DC-4 and focused its business more on supporting the mining areas of Greenland with the purchase of five more S-61 helicopters.
Within that as well, purchases for the Bell 206 helicopter were also made, and things started intensifying in operations when Grønlandsfly was handed a contract by the Danish Government to fly reconnaissance missions regarding the sea ice around Greenland.
Within the end of that decade, the carrier was handling around 60,000 passengers per year at that time. In 1979, the airline opened up its first international route, which was a rotation between Nuuk and Iqaluit, Canada.
Into The 80s…
In the 1980s, Greenland-based aviation changed drastically. For the better. Following the establishment of the Greenland Home Rule Government, short take-off and landing airfields were able to be constructed in Nuuk, Ilulissat, and Kulusuk.
As a result of this increased infrastructure, this increased the capacity offerings, so Grønlandsfly acquired DHC-7s, which enabled the carrier to fly in adverse weather as well as cater to the increase in capacity.
By 1981, the first route to Iceland was opened, which initially linked Kangerlussuaq, its main hub, to Reykjavik Airport.
Such a route opening by Grønlandsfly was important in offering a competitive advantage against legacy carrier Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and Icelandic carrier Icelandair via their Keflavik-Copenhagen route.
By the end of the ’80s, Grønlandsfly was growing further, having an employee base of over 400 people and carrying more than 100,000 passengers per year.
A Recession-Hit 1990s…
The start of the 1990s offered a little bit more of a struggle than the successes that they had witnessed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
A recession hit the Greenlandic economy, which resulted in a lot of the mining activities shutting down. However, there was an opportunity within this.
More short take-off and landing-based airports were built within Sisimiut Airport, Maniitsoq Airport, Qaarsut Airport, Upernavik Airport, and Aasiiat Airport, which enabled Grønlandsfly to purchase a fifth Dash 7.
This enabled the carrier to provide air services to all major towns in Greenland for the first time since its creation in the 60s.
By the end of the decade, things were definitely looking up once again.
This was caused by the introduction of their Boeing 757-200 in May 1998, which enabled the airline to launch a direct Kangerlussuaq-Copenhagen route directly, which cut out the middlemen of affiliates and also a layover within Iceland.
By 1999, the airline handled a staggering 282,000 passengers, which was nearly triple the number at the end of the previous decade.
The New Millenium…
As the airline entered the 2000s, there was a structural change within the company. CEO Peter Fich was sacked from the company due to not being able to provide a balance between Greenland’s Home Rule for local services as well as the board’s expectations for expanded tourism.
His replacement, Finn Øelund, was responsible for posting a 30 million DKK loss due to unprofitable services and summer strike fever.
On top of that, Post Greenland moved their lucrative mail contract from Grønlandsfly to Air Alpha Greenland.
Within that, there was a major pushback from Grønlandsfly, where it managed to reverse decisions adopted under the Home Rule and was able to rebrand itself into the brand we know today as Air Greenland in April 2002.
2003 saw the resignation of Øelund, who Flemming Knudson subsequently replaced.
Under his tenure, a route from Copenhagen to Akureyri, Iceland, was opened but was ended after six years due to it not being profitable.
However, SAS removed the Greenland services from its route network, which enabled Air Greenland to expand its fleet with the addition of a second Airbus A330-200 aircraft.
Even so, SAS did bring the route back during the peak periods of 2007 and ended it again in 2009.
Because of the withdrawal from SAS enabled Air Greenland to secure a contract with the U.S. Air Force for passenger services from Thule Air Base, which opened up another revenue stream for the carrier.
The contract started out in 2004 and was extended for another five years in 2008.
By 2006, the carrier took over Air Alpha Greenland, a helicopter operator, with the acquired Bell 222 helicopters being used for passenger transfers.
Knudson then resigned from the company in 2007 and headed over to Royal Greenland, with CEO Michael Binzer assigned and responsible for the Qarsoq 2012 plan.
The Qarsoq 2012 plan was aimed at leading the airline towards greater commercialization and self-sufficiency, which also resulted in SAS announcing the sale of its stake in the carrier.
By October of that year, the airline began direct services to Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
However, this was very short-lived due to a strike of Air Greenland employees, causing a slump in ticket sales and thereafter, the suspension of the route.
By the end of 2009, the airline carried 399,000 passengers, again a substantial increase compared to the end of the 1990s.
The Last Decade…
Heading into the 2010s, the airline suspended services from Narsarsuaq to Copenhagen. However, expansion was still on the cards.
At that time, there were a lot of talks that Air Greenland would have to operate services to Reykjavik Airport from Nuuk in order to combat market share acquisition from Icelandair, who were already operating services into Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Ilulissat, and other destinations.
Following the reopening of the Maarmorilik mines in November 2010, Air Greenland was able to reinstate some mining flights using Bell 212s out of the Uummannaq Heliport.
By 2011, the airline sold its final Twin Otter to now-subsidiary Norlandair in exchange for cash and a one-quarter interest in the company.
In 2012, the carrier reinstated the connections to Iqaluit, but from 2012-2013, the airline only noticed an increase in passenger numbers by a grand total of four compared to previous years.
By 2015, the route was subsequently closed once again. In July of that same year, Air Greenland became a member of the European Regions Airline Association.
By 2016, the airline sold its 50% stake in the Arctic Umiaq Line, which was a subsidized ferry service.
And that is the airline’s history, which has been substantial and has documented a significant level of growth over the last six decades.