DALLAS — Air Greenland (GL) shines bright in red and comes across as a unique airline that leaves many curious about its operations and more, about the country of Greenland itself.
But there’s a bigger picture. The airline is truly the lifeline to the country’s existence, shuttling people and cargo from Copenhagen, Denmark with an Airbus A330neo, and once in Greenland, the responsibility falls onto a tiny fleet of Dash 8s to carry the needed to the extents within the glacier based country, where air travel is the most efficient and in most cases the only option.
Airways Siddharth Ganesh meets with Jacob Nitter Sorensen, CEO of Air Greenland, and discusses how the airline fairs into the year 2023 and whether it can really expand and grow as one could imagine.
SG: First and foremost, It’s a few months into Tuukkaq’s (A330-800) entry into service – are you already seeing some benefits? What are they?
JNS: So, at first, when you implement a new aircraft, you expect certain difficulties or issues that can turn up, but we haven’t had any. We also kept “Norsaq” as a backup for three months in case Tuukkaq faced any problems.
But things went flawlessly. We are benefitting from the lower fuel burn and higher seat count. We’ve got the Wi-Fi onboard that works really well, provided by Onair. Furthermore, we were experienced with the A330 and its operations, be it training of crew and other procedures which made it a smooth transition for us.
How has Q1 turned out to be – better than expected? And, are you expecting a busy summer?
We laid an ambitious budget and we’re meeting our target. But we are seeing a little slowdown compared to last year when there was a catch-up effect from the backside of COVID, a lot of people postponed their trips…all bookings from 2021 and 2022 coming together at one go.
Yet, we are expecting a busy summer. Our flights are flying with good loads, but the issue in peak season is that we can’t add more capacity as the receiving capacity (hotels in Greenland) just doesn’t have enough rooms.
This is the biggest limiting factor to your growth.
Absolutely. We still added 10% capacity to last year, but we can’t go more due to infrastructure in Greenland.
“In summer there’s a lot of leisure and VFR and outside that it’s a lot of public need and necessity-based travel. Summer is the bulk for us.”Jacob Nitter Sorensen, CEO of Air Greenland
Besides your brand-new A330 Neo, you’re also flying a 737 on an ACMI contract to Billund and Copenhagen.
Yes correct, to both destinations, based on ACMI with Jetline Jettime to Kangerlussuaq and Narsarsuaq. That’s the added capacity in the low season, but in summer hotels are fully occupied, so adding more flights beyond this doesn’t work until there’s infrastructure growth to accommodate more. So, all in all, once again, we expect a busy summer on the flying side, yes, but we can’t grow for the time being.
Greenland is a very, very small market with potentially two international airports opening in the near future and at this moment we build capacity with Tuukkaq and also the ACMI for temporary capacity needs. Since our peak demand is during summer, it makes sense for us to follow the ACMI model to fill the capacity, at least for now. But at one point we will reach a point where it would make sense to add our own aircraft.
Why did you go for a single A330 instead of two A321s?
We’ve done a lot of analysis and a lot of people ask me this question, for one thing, Tuukkaq is very effective for our model and especially for bad weather. It has the operational range that the A320 family doesn’t.
We can fly out of Copenhagen and, if need be, hold for a very long time and even make the flight back. Then there’s of course with having two aircraft, twice as many need of pilots, twice as many engines and C checks and not as much cargo capacity, especially belly hold space.
With Tuukkaq we can take 305 passengers along with 15–17 tons of pure cargo. No way two A321s can compete with that. It’s the most effective for us. The wide body is also a better product for customers.
When you have the two airports ready (Nuuk and Ilulissat), what’s going to change in your operations?
The domestic network will change quite a bit as today we feed a lot of passengers out of SFJ and nearly 50% of passengers are headed to Nuuk or llulissat, so the feeder service will gradually disappear.
South Greenland will also have a new airport. So we’re expecting to connect the South through Nuuk. Nuuk and llulissat will have flights to Copenhagen. We’re looking at single-day travel from most of Europe to Greenland.
We’ll also use ACMI here initially, while Tuukkaq will continue to be the backbone of our operations.
If you do get your own aircraft, which you’re considering, it would positively be from the A320 family.
Yes, the commonality between the A330 and A320 family makes it the best choice, we can rotate crews, and mixed fleet flying. It would make the most sense.
Flights to the United States – why hasn’t it worked out? Do you have plans to get back to that market?
We did the Baltimore flights with our Boeing 757 back in 2006 I think, there were many things we did wrong. The US market is difficult to penetrate, has a lot of competition, and hence needs a lot of money to market well to reach customers.
There’s definitely a huge potential, but you need to market well and in advance, and we didn’t do that last time. We also need to fly to an airport that has good connections to get the feed and potentially partner with airlines.
Also, the awareness of Greenland wasn’t as high as today and how much more accessible it is today. But by numbers, it’s still a small market, on a yearly basis less than 4000 Americans visit Greenland.
Toronto is a good hub and likewise New York area and DC in the US. We’re definitely looking again at possibilities to go west.
Back to Europe, where could you fly beyond Copenhagen?
We haven’t made any firm decision yet. The largest market for Greenland outside Scandinavia is Germany. We have just over 4000 Germans coming to the country each year. And again, hotel beds are just enough, so we can’t just open a new route to a new market now. Not that simple for us.
You’ve narrowed down the VX4 with Avalon. How do you plan to implement your eVTOL operations?
So, we looked at the VX4, the application for many airlines would be a city taxi. In Greenland however, it’s a great way to offer scenic flights for tourists because we have immense hydroelectric power and the main Ice fjords (touristic attractions) are all about 5-10 miles from the airport, so it’s a perfect fit for sustainable tourism, completely CO2 free. It will replace today’s helicopters and boats.
Air Greenland is undoubtedly a unique airline, what challenges do you face that most others don’t?
One of the biggest, we’re a big country with a small market, and that’s hard. We must spread our business over different operations to make it work. The complexity of the weather, environment, fleet, and operations is a huge challenge. I think we have the most complex AOC in Europe.
Funnily, the easiest thing we do is the A330 operation. It’s so easy compared to the rest we do.
Five years from now, you wake up, where would you like to see Air Greenland at?
The ideal situation is that we have increased and been able to create more full-time jobs within the tourism industry. Overall, sustainable growth within aviation and tourism benefits Greenland.
We’re owned by Greenland and work for Greenland- it’s a bigger picture. It’s for our people and our children. One of the best ways to get here is to utilize the maximum potential of our newer airports which would be soon.
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