Rapidly expanding Icelandair connects the world with its fascinating island homeland, but growing pains are sharp at its crowded Reykjavik airport.
I just got back from a trip to Scotland — which I loved — on Icelandair, which I’ve loved in the past. This time? Not so much.
The airline’s rapid growth and the resultant chaos I encountered at its Reykjavik airport is mostly why.
This was my second Icelandair journey. Their low fares wooed me to fly to London with them a few years ago, with a stopover in Iceland.
The airline’s free stopover in its fascinating homeland was a delightful add-on to that trip. The over-Canada and Greenland route makes for a direct flight of only about seven hours from Seattle to Iceland. It was a winning combination: Stop there for a few nights to break up the trans-Atlantic flight; see compact, walkable Reykjavik, learn of Iceland’s Viking history, and tour the starkly beautiful, geothermally popping countryside.
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I was smitten, to the point of proselytizing about the experience.
The business model — cheap fares to Europe, free stopovers — has worked like gangbusters. Since Icelandair started serving Seattle in 2009, it has nearly tripled the size of its route network, with a capacity increase from 1.3 million passengers to about 3.7 million last year.
It now offers year-round flights from Boston, Chicago, Denver, Edmonton, Minneapolis, New York, Newark, Seattle, Tampa, Toronto and Washington, D.C., plus seasonal flights from more than half a dozen more North American cities and connections to more than 25 destinations across Europe
But the boom has happened too quickly for the hometown airport, my family and I discovered last week.
Troubles on the tarmac
It’s tough to separate the airline from its airport: Every Icelandair flight stops at its home base, Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport. On a recent weekday, close to half of arrivals and departures there were Icelandair flights.
On the homeward leg, our happy smiles from a week in Scotland rapidly faded during a plane change among grumpy crowds at Keflavik.
As we waited to make our Seattle connection, departing Iceland at 5 p.m., I counted 15 other flights scheduled to leave for North America within 15 minutes of ours. There was barely a seat to be had in the airport.
That was partly a function of the tight scheduling, but also the fact that the terminal has woefully insufficient seating. There were 10 chairs — not 10 open chairs, just 10 chairs — around the gate where we stood waiting for our fully-booked Seattle flight.
It wasn’t just that day. Writing April 9 on the online rating site Skytrax, reviewer A. Sharman described conditions: “When we arrived at Keflavik we sat on the runway a long time waiting for what the captain referred to as our ‘parking space.’ After several updates saying we were about to dock, he then started driving around the airport looking for another ‘parking space.’ On the way back, we got to our gate and there were no chairs! None. Everyone was sitting on the floor!”
Wrote Tom B. of Bainbridge Island, in an April 16 TripAdvisor posting: “The lines to board flights from Iceland back to the U.S., all leaving at or about the same time, were a disorganized mess. Our flight ended up leaving Iceland about 30 minutes late.”
Same with our April 12 flight. At the gate, it was amateur hour. Icelandair agents made no boarding announcements (a peculiarity we remembered from our last visit). Nor did they prioritize boarding by seat row. They just started checking boarding passes and letting people board the plane. Luckily, nobody was trampled.
It is also one of the few airports with a smoking area. While that is separate from the terminal, the door kept sticking open, so our entire concourse had a choking Pall Mall pall. It was like spending two hours in a cheap casino.
The flight did little to improve the mood. The seats struck me as unusually narrow and hard. SeatGuru.com says Icelandair 767s such as we flew have 17-inch-wide seats in economy, not uncommon but some of the narrower seats among long-haul carriers. (Some of the airline’s 757 fleet give you 19-inch-wide economy seats.)
Worse was the lack of foot room. Beneath the aisle seats my wife and I occupied, Icelandair stowed something like extra life vests, going almost clear to the floor. For my 6-foot-2-inch frame that was a problem. Didn’t sleep a wink on the overnight flight eastward.
OK, you get what you pay for these days. And the airline’s fares to Europe can be quite good, such as our $588 round-trip to Glasgow. Too, for a relatively low-fare carrier, the in-flight entertainment system is decent: Screens with free movies on the back of every seat helped fill the sleepless hours.
There is the usual free beverage service, and one free checked bag.
What you don’t get without paying extra: any food (not even a tiny bag of pretzels), which is unusual for a long international flight. And the for-purchase food choices come dear (e.g. a $15 salad or $16 chicken curry), which I guess just prepares you for prices in Reykjavik. (It’s an isolated nation on the Arctic Circle; they import a lot of foodstuffs, making for alarming restaurant tabs.)
It’s no great surprise Iceland has outgrown its airport. Besides Icelandair, Keflavik is a hub for WOW Air, a busy no-frills carrier that launched in 2012, and is also now served by Norwegian, SAS, Finnair, easyJet and more.
Keflavik expects to handle 8.7 million passengers this year, more than triple what it saw five years ago. A 2015 report in Airport Business magazine called its passenger growth “staggering” and “a figure that has far exceeded the gateway’s expectations.”
The airport has been handling such growth with only 12 places to park aircraft at terminal gates (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is much busier, has 80 gates), plus “remote” positions that accommodate 16 big aircraft or up to 20 smaller jets. “Remote” means you take a bus out to the tarmac and climb stairs to get on your plane — right out in the weather, as my shivering family and I did in an Iceland snowstorm the first week of April.
The good news for Iceland travelers is that expansion is underway. In 2015, the terminal was 603,000 square feet. By this summer it will be 775,000 square feet, according to Gudni Sigurdsson, spokesman for Isavia, the state-owned company that operates the airport.
“We have been working heavily on construction and on other projects that increase capacity,” Sigurdsson said in an email.
Plans are to open this summer a new 75,000-square-foot building adding to border control, passenger areas and food-and-beverage services. Isavia is adding seven more remote loading stands (for boarding away from the terminal). Rapid-exit taxiways are being implemented to facilitate more takeoffs and landings. The airport’s master plan calls for continued expansion to accommodate up to 14 million passengers, expected by 2040, if not sooner.
“The airport is indeed expanding, considerably, but as I’m sure you could see, so is tourism!” said Icelandair spokesman Michael Raucheisen, in an email. “Iceland has been busier than ever!”
He didn’t respond to my questions about foot room or gate management. For questions about the airport, he passed the buck to Isavia.
Meanwhile Icelandair continues to grow. In its 2017 schedule, it will offer up to twice-daily service from Washington-Dulles, daily service from Chicago and Edmonton, up to nine flights a week from Denver and up to five flights a week from Portland. Beginning in June, additional weekly flights will commence to Holland, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Italy and Sweden.
Will the airport expansion keep up with the airline’s expansion? If you have the fortitude of a Viking, fly through Iceland this summer and find out. You’ll be braver than I am.