Published in February 2016 issue
If you reside in the fledgling nation of the Faroe Islands, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it is easy to feel alone. Luckily, you’ve got Atlantic Airways (RC).
By Ramsey Qubein
This Faroese Airline, with three Airbus A319s and a small slew of helicopters (including two new AgustaWestland AW139s on order) used mostly to link the small islands and for search and rescue operations, serve as a lifeline between this mid-Atlantic island chain and the world.
The Faroe Islands are home to a tight-knit community—so tight that a flight aboard Atlantic is often the scene of many hugs and handshakes between passengers who know each other or even the crew. Given the high level of service found on board the airline’s one-cabin planes, even business travelers see no need for a multi-class product. Meals are offered on every flight, along with an open bar service.
And now, under new airline CEO Jóhanna á Bergiis—an experienced local who knows the market—Atlantic Airways is prepared to move up to the next level.
KEY DOMESTIC LINKS
For those traveling within the country by helicopter (including oil and gas workers), flights are heavily subsidized, as highway links between the various islands are not always an option.
Understandably, the airline’s most prominent route is to Copenhagen (CPH), the island chain’s national link and its central hub for global connectivity. Flights from the home base at Vágar island (FAE) go thrice daily in summer and twice a day in winter.
Other destinations include the secondary Danish cities of Billund (BLL) and Aalborg (AAL).
While the Vágar airport has been upgraded with next generation technology to avoid delays, it is not uncommon for passengers to book overnight stays in Copenhagen in transit from the Faroes to their destinations; this is due to concerns over weather conditions, which can delay flights and affect connections. This is uncommon in the industry, and is becoming even rarer (see below); however, this habit persists among frequent travelers from the Faroe Islands to destinations abroad.
The last major accident at Vágar occurred in 1996, when a Danish Air Force Gulfstream III collided with the terrain on its final approach, killing nine people on board.
ADVANCED AIRCRAFT TECHNOLOGY
Atlantic Airways was the first to operate the most advanced navigation technology in Europe on its Airbus A319s. The airline partnered with Airbus to launch the Required Navigation Performance (RNP) AR 0.1, a GPSbased technology combined with a standard instrument landing system (ILS) that provides aircraft with the capability of landing under extreme weather conditions. This has helped improve the operational regularity of its scheduled flights into the airport, and has given Atlantic an edge over other airlines operating into Vágar.
The locals love to tell the story of an Aegean Airlines (Airways, November 2015) Airbus, carrying the Greek national football team that was scheduled to land at the Faroes but had to divert due to low visibility. Thanks to the new technology, Atlantic was still operating its flights, while Aegean could not. The Greek team missed its practice and lost the game. No one ever states the reason outright, but the locals love to play the aviation card and throw their beloved Atlantic Airways on the table for that incident.
Yes, the locals actually like their national airline. In 2015, Atlantic had an on-time performance rate of 83%. This is remarkable as, in addition to fog, strong crosswinds can delay the aircraft landing on or taking off from the airport’s single runway, also affecting the on-time rate.
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VÁGAR AIRPORT POISED TO EXPAND
With a growing island population, the airline’s route network is becoming increasingly important for the locals. With the recent ILS upgrades to runway 30, some keen entrepreneurship, and the impressive growth in possible flight length, the airport is eyeing new growth possibilities. The new runway landing capabilities make the airport functional for narrowbodies such as Airbus A320 family aircraft.
Vágar Airport officials are actively courting new airlines. Since the airport extended the length of Runway 12/30 from 4,101 to 5,902ft (1,250 to 1,799m), it has seen a record number of ad hoc charters flying to the islands. Airport officials hope that the improvements will lead to new service options.
In the month of August, the FlightView aviation website listed Vágar as the number one airport in the world in terms of operational regularity.
Revenue from duty-free sales to both arriving and departing passengers is a source of income for the airport. The arrivals can stop at the duty-free shop to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, and candy, among other things, saving lots of money while generating revenue for the airport. The departures shop too, but not to the degree of the incoming passengers. According to Atlantic Airways, the duty-free profits are split between the airport and the airline.
Because of the year round rough weather, customers would like to see jet bridges added to the terminal, but the airport authority determined they wouldn’t have been cost effective, given the extremely short transits between the terminal and aircraft. Besides, jet bridges could easily be damaged in heavy winds and rain.
GROWTH ON THE HORIZON
Atlantic plans to exchange one of its Airbus A319s for an A320 when the former aircraft’s lease expires.
The airline recently launched the ‘NORD route’, which strengthens the ties between the Faroes and its neighbors by flying several times a week to destinations like Bergen (BGO), Reykjavik (KEF), and Edinburgh (EDI). These routes cater to both business and leisure travelers.
This strategy has helped the carrier grow summertime passenger numbers by 11% year over year. In 2014, from May to August, the airline flew 109,500 system-wide passengers; this year, the carrier welcomed approximately 122,000.
The airline also set a lower price structure— not what you’d expect from a carrier that holds the de facto monopoly on a destination. The aim is to create an affordable pricing to enable and encourage almost all of the 50,000 residents of the Faroe Islands to travel. The strategy seems to have worked. Local travelers have taken notice and are jumping on the low fares.
While the United States, with Boston (BOS) and, perhaps, New York (JFK), would be within the reach of Atlantic Airways aircraft, the demand just is not there at the moment. Atlantic does not offer codeshares, but it does interline with SAS (SK) and Icelandair (FI), giving passengers the opportunity to travel further without having to reclaim their luggage en route.
Weather conditions permitting, photographers will find no shortage of spectacular shots, as Airbus planes lift off from a runway that ends over a cliff and climb over the Faroese bay that surrounds the stunning Vágar airport.
Local travelers can take part in the fun, too. The airline occasionally runs competitions on social media allowing people to vote on a destination (out of four chosen by the airline) for roundtrip flights on specific sets of dates, for a week-long vacation somewhere in Europe. Flights to the destination that has received the highest number of votes are then flown on the pre-assigned dates.
Atlantic Airways has tried and implemented with great success a new pricing scheme (implemented by the airline’s interim CEO Jorgen Holme) offering significantly discounted prices for advance purchases. This has helped to grow the numbers of local flyers.
This 100% publicly owned company is an airline built by and for the people of the Faroe Islands.