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New aircraft and new airports: Air Greenland’s CEO looks to the future

Air Greenland Dash-8

New aircraft and new airports: Air Greenland’s CEO looks to the future

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If you’re a subscriber to our fast-growing YouTube channel you’ll know that I recently spent a week in Greenland doing a bunch of flying with flag carrier Air Greenland. It was a fantastic trip, one of the best in recent memory. Not only is Greenland simply incredible, but aviation really is at the center of things there. In a country that has no roads between towns, you’re looking at boat, dog sled, or flying. And then there’s the views from the plane. All of which is to say that as far as making videos about flying goes, Greenland is hard to beat.

Greenland Dash 8 flight view mountain
The view from a Dash 8 flight to Nuuk (GOH)

In case you haven’t seen the Air Greenland videos yet, here’s the latest:

I’m still working my way through all the footage and will be releasing more videos from that trip as I get them edited. But in the meantime, I wanted to post a condensed version of a conversation I had with Jacob Nitter Sørensen, Air Greenland’s CEO, while I was there.

The setting for this one was unusual and interesting, like most things that happen in Greenland. We had flown down in one of the company’s AS350 helicopters to a ruby mine south of Nuuk. After looking around at the mine and seeing some of the dark red and precious rocks they were pulling out of the ground, we went to have some lunch. As it turned out, the canteen at this mine was famous for its very high quality. I don’t know about you but when I imagine the food at a mine, I imagine big vats of food that you can’t quite identify. Fuel to get on to the next part of the shift, and nothing more. This couldn’t have been further from that image. A veritable feast, mostly of fresh seafood, awaited us. Giant snow crab legs? Smoked salmon and halibut? Fish soup full of juicy shrimp? All available. There were also reindeer cold cuts and various other delicacies to try out. 

AS350 parked ruby mine Greenland
An AS350 parked at the site of a ruby mine in Greenland.

But this is an aviation site, not a food blog, so let’s get on with the conversation with Jacob Nitter, shall we? The big news in Greenland is that construction is underway on new and expanded airports at both Nuuk, the capital, and Ilulissat. That means that by 2024, as plans currently stand, these two cities will be able to receive much larger aircraft, and more of them at a time. Whereas right now anything bigger than a Dash 8 would have trouble getting in, the A330 (and soon-to-arrive A330-800NEO) would be able to fly direct from Europe or North America to these cities, cutting out a connection for most visitors. It is potentially one of the biggest game-changers Greenland will have seen in years – opening up not only much of the untapped potential for the tourism industry, but also making life easier for Greenlandic residents and facilitating the delivery of more cargo directly to Greenland’s population centers. Here is the conversation I had with Jacob Nitter.

FR24: What do the new airports represent for Air Greenland?

JN: The new airports are both the biggest opportunity and the biggest threat if you look at it from a strategic point of view. Of course it’s a huge opportunity to be able to get your passengers to their destination via a direct flight from international destinations. That means it will be cheaper, faster, easier to get tourists and business travelers to Greenland. But of course it’s a threat because it will be that much easier for a competitor to enter the market. And also because it means we will remove a big part of the volume on the domestic network. All the people that today go to the capital and main tourist destinations via domestic flights [through Kangerlussuaq (SFJ)] will be able to take direct flights in the future. So you reduce flights on the domestic network, and that gives us some structural issues in the future in terms of maintaining the domestic network. There are some barriers we need to overcome.

Air Greenland A330 tail
The tail of Air Greenland’s sole A330, a -200 named Norsaq.

FR24: How do you ensure you don’t lose passengers to competitors who might want to enter this market?

JN: We need to have a competitive price. I’m very confident that we can meet that. We have to have the product as well. But the main thing is we need to increase the market, we need to build new markets, because the markets that are there today are so small. So we need to attract new travelers to Greenland. That’s why we’re looking at the west coast of North America and other destinations in Europe, targeting the most interesting markets for Greenland. But it’s a little bit of a Catch-22 because even though a lot of people want to go to Greenland, we’re a big island with a small population, so the receiving capacity is not there yet. We don’t have enough hotels. We don’t have enough off-grid lodges. We can’t cater for a big growth, a big influx of tourists. So that’s a constraint and it’s another thing that we’re working on. We’re planning to build a new premium icefjord lodge outside of Nuuk – that’s to increase that receiving capacity. We want to expedite the process, because it will be good for Greenland.

FR24: Are you worried about low-cost airlines coming here?

JN: I don’t think we’ll see many low cost airlines coming in because of the complex operation and big costs involved in diversions and having to cater for passengers in hotels and everything. We’re used to having to adapt to the weather. I don’t think it’s a barrier that would keep everyone away, but [flying here is] not for everyone, let’s put it that way.

Air Greenland mountain view
Views after an early morning departure from Nuuk.

FR24: What are the potential new routes you’re looking at?

JN: I hope that we’ll be able to open a new route to North America around May or June 2025. That’s what we’re aiming for. But a lot of things have to fall into place before that happens. We need to be able to handle the increased number of people coming in. We also need to make the right deals with airports and travel agencies and have a marketing campaign in place. Getting more aircraft is the easy part. The difficult part is establishing a new market, because the market is basically zero today. So how do you establish a market from zero? That is the biggest challenge today.

We’re looking at New York, Washington DC, even Toronto which offers many onward connections but also is important for the mineral industry. Also Philadelphia, and Boston. We’re now in discussions with all of those to see where it would make the most sense to add service.

We also have a Letter of Intent to work with Canadian North on adding routes like Nuuk-Iqaluit. That route has been operated before but it’s never been an economically viable route, so one of the requirements to get that going is to get support one way or the other, maybe from both the Canadian and Greenland government, or from other players who will share the commercial risk. Some obvious benefits of that route: we’re closely related; we have strong cultural ties; we would like to establish stronger business ties. But we need someone to share the risk.

Air Greenland helicopter
Helicopters remain an important means of transport in Greenland.

FR24: It would seem like the interest in Greenland is certainly there to establish new markets and fill up planes.

JN: Currently 80 percent of our passengers want to go to Denmark. That’s why I’m saying we need to establish new markets. I think a lot of Americans would love to go to Greenland but right now the market is not there. But with Denmark we have strong family ties, cultural ties, business ties – so it’s been the logical choice for many years. 

Like I always say, any airline will fly wherever there is a market. And so far we haven’t been able to create other markets that are big enough to carry direct routings. The Scandinavian market is matured, so the growth will have to come from other markets. So it will help Greenland diversify, and help bring more money into our economy if we can open those markets. The proceeds, or the profits that we make, will go straight into the Greenlandic society and the Greenlandic economy. That’s what we’re working for every day.

And if you’re still in the mood to be immersed in all things Greenland, here is Part 1 of our Greenland series, from the A330 flight out of Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq.

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