"There was overcapacity", says Michael Højgaard, CEO of Air Greenland. "Then SAS quit in 2002 and we got our A330, and since 2003 we are very profitable." No wonder, as Air Greenland is now serving this important lifeline as a monopolist.
Given that we talk about flights of about 4 hour 20 minutes in length here, the fares are enormous, despite Air Greenland lowering its prices in Economy Class by about 15 percent in the last few years. And one has to concede that in a difficult environment like Greenland, where almost everything has to be imported, life is expensive anyway.
The cheapest Economy fares start at around 600 Euros for a return from/to Copenhagen, but then one just lands at Kangerlussuaq.
The former Söndre Strömfjord, located at the end of the 180-kilometer-long fjord of the same name on the West coast, is Greenland's only commercial airport with a runway taking on widebody jets. A legacy of an US air base, having been built out of the permafrost ground at the edge of the inland ice in the Second World War.
"Nobody wants to go to Kangerlussuaq", admits Michael Højgaard, about half of all passengers are connecting from the hub to the capital Nuuk, a quarter to the important tourist town of Ilulissat with the biggest icebergs. In Kangerlussuaq, there is just the airport, a few shops and accommodation, nothing else.
The round trip from Copenhagen to Nuuk and back is about 900 Euros in the cheapest case, more likely prices in Economy are around 1,400 Euros. A flexible ticket in Business Class will cost over 1,900 Euros. A lot of money for a flight of the duration it takes to reach the Canary Islands from Central Europe.
But then, Air Greenland is one of the world's most unusual airlines, operating in extremely difficult terrain, where for example changing weather, rising fog or a storm, can make flying impossible in an instant. "Imaqaa Airways" - "Maybe Airways" has therefore been a nickname for Greenland's national carrier for ages.
"That was long ago, today we are trying to be proactive and to communicate better with passengers in the case of delays", says the CEO. The advantage of Kangerlussuaq being, that due to its location inland, far away from the rougher coast, it enjoys a more stable weather pattern. Otherwise it would hardly be possible to keep up operations with a single A330 as the only jet in the fleet, which is run on a tight schedule.
Air Greenland operates the Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen route up to twice daily with its only jet aircraft, it also operates charters from Copenhagen to the Canary Islands in winter. And this continuous operation shows on the aircraft, inside and out. The livery of the A330-200 is supposedly the brightest anywhere, in a glowing red, an important signal color in Greenland, for example in a snow storm.
But already on the wings there are black marks, it's unclear if it's dirt or hydraulic oil. And the cabin has clearly seen better days, in 1998, when Sabena received it factory-fresh from Toulouse. And it appears there hasn't been much change of the interior since then.
"We completely agree the cabin doesn't look pristine anymore", admits CEO Michael Højgaard. "We had decided to change the aircraft last year, the idea was to get a newer A330, but then all these discussions about possible runway extensions in Nuuk and Ilulissat came up, which would require smaller aircraft. The strategy now is to keep the A330 and keep it up to date, but not invest too much in it, until we have some more clarification."
Flight GL782 is almost fully booked on this Friday afternoon, the only available seat in Business Class can be booked at the counter for an additional fee of 300 Euros on top of an existing Economy booking. There is no lounge for Business Class guests in Kangerlussuaq, boarding is on foot across the ramp, it's only a few meters to the gangway.
My seat today is 7G, in the middle section of the last but one row on this 2-2-2 configured forward cabin. Sabena scored in its last years with a 60-inch (152cm)-pitch in Business Class, before the era of the lie-flat seat. Air Greenland has reduced the pitch to 54 inches (137cm), which is no problem on a day-time flight of less than four and a half hours.
But in general, nothing much seems to have been changed in the seats in 18 years. Also, the IFE with fold-out individual screens at every seat, oozes the flair of the 1990s, before the advent of "on demand". Here, two films are run in a fixed pattern, the screen indicating the elapsed time. Such systems from the early days of IFE have been almost forgotten today.
My footrest can't be extended straight, one of the hinges seems to be loose or broken. No airline should tolerate this state of its equipment. In contrast, the service is forthcoming, beverages are offered before takeoff, sparkling wine or orange juice, also newspapers. Luckily for me, as apparently the only non-Dane up front, the International New York Times is available, too.
Takeoff is on time, and one of the highlights of this flight follows soon after: The cabin crew is distributing weird-looking, square boxes, clad in fur. I hesitate, having no clue what this could be. The fur is seal fur, very widespread in Greenland, and then I realize that this is a folder containing the menu card. Very original! With minimal effort Air Greenland manages to genuinely impress passengers and establish a relation to where it comes from.
My enthusiasm evaporates, however, as I realize what is on offer: There is no choice, just one menu for all, smoked chicken breast, and I'm absolutely not keen on produce from industrial poultry farming. Strangely enough, everything is served on a tray at once, appetizer and main course. The former is hot-smoked pepper salmon with cous cous salad and dill mayonnaise, all without significant aroma.
Of the main dish, I at least get to like the Jasmin rice, sugar peas, caramelized onions and red pepper sauce. Cheese is then offered, individually packaged from the bread basket. The meal is accompanied by decent wines, one white, one red. All good, but after the wow effect of the menu card, this is no more than food to get filled. And I ask myself, as there is no indication on the menu: No desert?
But then the flight attendant appears with the trolley and distributes a small, dark chocolate cake to everyone. And that's quite something and as hard to crack as the steel of a tank. My seat mates try it with a fork, with a spoon, no chance. You have to take it in hand and tuck your teeth in it, when it becomes apparent that this choc crust is about one centimeter thick. And absolutely delicious, but a bit hard to eat.
At least by now, one is filled to the brim and needs a cognac, which arrives swiftly, and most passengers appear to enjoy some kind of spirit, probably a habit in the cold of Greenland. A short nap later, and the runway at Copenhagen's Kastrup airport comes in sight for an on-time landing. All the while the true challenge of an agreeable flight is still to come, unfortunately: Until the bags appear on the belt, it takes one hour and 20 minutes, without explanation, absolutely inacceptable.
Air Greenland enjoys a monopoly on the route between Copenhagen and Greenland, and therefore can afford to charge high prices for a not totally satisfying product. The airline should urgently enhance appearance and functionality of the cabin. Otherwise all is there to deliver a decent experience.
Airline: Air Greenland
Aircraft type: Airbus A330-200
Cabin: Business Class
Date: April 18, 2016
Andreas Spaeth flies. Very frequently. On PaxEx.com one of the leading European aviation journalists shares his personal passenger experiences traveling around the globe.
Follow Andreas on his Twitter @SpaethFlies.
© Andreas Spaeth | Abb.: Andreas Spaeth | May 27, 2016 14:09