A locally owned airline is looking to open up northern Iceland | Polarjournal
200,000 if by sea. More if by air (Photo: This Usually Works)

For most people traveling to and from Iceland, the country’s gateway is located in the west, where its main international airport, Keflavík, is situated. That is convenient if your travel starts or stops in Reykjavík, some 50km away. For travel involving destinations in the north and west, it is not, so now businesses in and around Akureyri, the country’s fourth largest city, have banded together to form an airline of their own. 

Niceair will begin offering five or six weekly flights between Akureyri and Denmark, Spain and the UK starting on 2 June. No specific destinations have been announced yet, but, according to Þorvaldur Lúðvík Sigurjónsson, the managing director, the routes have been chosen to meet the demand of incoming and outgoing travellers.

Prior to 2019 and the disruptions caused to the travel industry by measures imposed to contain the pandemic, some 200,000 people visited Akureyri each year, most of them aboard cruise ships though. Niceair’s own research suggests more would like to come, especially winter travellers and those who have been to Iceland once before, but that without a direct flight that potential will largely remain untapped.

Currently, Akureyri is served by Air Iceland connect, a domestic carrier that offers service to Reykjavík, and Norlandair, another domestic carrier that also flies to Greenland. Transavia, a Dutch firm, offers seasonal charters from the Netherlands. Niceair will not be the first Icelandic firm that tries to Akureyri an international destination, but its 17 shareholders, one of which is Samherji, one of Iceland’s largest companies, all have a vested interest in the success of the route, and have already invested enough money to keep the airline operating for at least two years. 

Akureyri, critics point out, is tiny; but though it is home to fewer than 20,000, the region Niceair hopes to service is home to 50,000 people. That is the same as the population of the Faroe Islands, which is served by a national airline that flies to 10 destinations in six countries; two others have regular flights to at least once a week. That is proof, according to Sigurjónsson, that Akureyri is a viable destination.

“We believe we are starting out really cautiously, with one third of he flights that research tells us the market overseas and here at home would support,” he says.

Potential gateway (Photo: Hansueli Krapf)

Niceair is also being careful about how much it invests in hardware. Instead of buying and flying its planes itself, it will lease a 150-seat Airbus A319 that will be operated and crewed by an unnamed European carrier. Administering ticket sales and promoting the brand and the destination will still create about 25 local jobs, but Sigurjónsson reckons that the airline’s true value will be in its knock-on impact.

“The company’s goal is to secure scheduled flights year-round to foreign destinations from Akureyri Airport,” he says. “That will simultaneously improve the quality of life for residents in the area, improve the access of foreign travellers to northern Iceland, and last, but not least, greatly improve the competitiveness of companies in the area.”

Niceair’s first flights will come a year after Akureyri Airport cut the first sod for a terminal that is due to open in 2023. The terminal, as well as an upgraded ramp, will double the airport’s capacity and make it easier to process travellers from abroad. Akureyri, it seems, will have its airline and a gateway, too.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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