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Interview: Air Greenland CEO Talks Future Network Plans, Fleet Strategy

CEO of Air Greenland Jacob Nitter Sørensen talks about his airline's expansion around the country, and possibly to the U.S.

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Air Greenland’s sole Airbus A300-800neo seconds before touching down in Kangerlussuaq (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Air Greenland has an interesting history and an even more intriguing future ahead. With airport expansions taking place around the country and the delivery of the airline’s biggest investment ever, its flagship Airbus A330-800neo, the future for the airline is looking upward.

AirlineGeeks had the opportunity to interview the CEO of the airline, Jacob Nitter Sørensen, and ask him some questions not only about the airline itself but also about infrastructure growth plans across Greenland.

The author at Air Greenland’s headquarters in Nuuk, Greenland (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

AirlineGeeks (AG): Once your newer runways open in Nuuk, Ilulissat, and others, are you going to phase out your international hub there in Kangerlussuaq?

Jacob Nitter Sørensen (JNS): Yeah, so today with Kangerlussuaq being the main hub, of course, the idea is to switch the main hub to Nuuk, and with Ilulissat as a secondary hub. We’ll still be flying into Kangerlussuaq with domestic aircraft, and hopefully, there will also be demand for international charter flights to Kangerlussuaq in the future, because I believe that Kangerlussuaq will continue to be an attractive destination both for, tourism purposes, but also with increased military activities. So, in terms of being the main hub, yes we are gonna switch to Nuuk, but we’ll still be flying to Kangerlussuaq.

(AG): Will you shift your new seasonal Kangerlussuaq to Billund service to Nuuk once the runway opens?

(JNS): Yeah, most likely that’s going to be the case. Around 50 to 60 percent of the passengers, total passengers, are going to need, Nuuk as the final destination. So it makes sense also to switch the Billund service to here [Nuuk] in the future.

The terminal in Kangerlussuaq (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): Will the service with your A330-800neo to Copenhagen alternate between Nuuk and Ilulissat, or will it primarily fly out of Nuuk?

(JNS): It’s probably going to be primarily Nuuk, and then in the high season we will alternate a little bit. The seasonal demand in Ilulissat is very variable, with very high demand in the summer months and very low demand in the wintertime. So, in the summer months, that will make sense with the 330 [Airbus A330-800neo], but not in the winter time, where we’ll probably be utilizing, and dispatching narrow-body aircraft to Ilulissat.

(AG): You recently announced that you’re going to resume flying to Iqaluit in May of 2024. How do you plan on expanding your newly announced partnership with Canadian North out of their hub in Iqaluit?

(JNS): Yeah, so, we’re very excited to start flying that route again, there are many many ties between our regions, our countries, both cultural and also business-wise. So, I think it’s going to make a big difference that we have the direct route [to Iqauluit] and of course, Canadian North is a very important partner in making the route viable, and maybe even making the route a year-round route. Of course, with their network, they are key in securing as many passengers as possible with their routes to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and so on. I think that’s gonna make a difference. So they have a seasonal route to Toronto and hopefully, that will also at some point turn into an all-year route.

But anyway, the Canadian North network is key to making our new route to Iqaluit a success, so now we’re gonna start up, and hopefully, it will be off to a good start next year. And then I think when the market sees the opportunities, I’m sure that we’re going to see taking off in a positive way, both in terms of tourism, but also within the mineral exploration sector. A lot of Canadians are working in agreement in the mineral exploration field. And also the new airport being built in South Greenland is by a Canadian company, so there’s definitely a basis for passengers from Southern Canada, as well as New England.

(AG): I know briefly you served the United States in the early 2000s through Baltimore. With these new runways opening up and the hopefully increased tourism, do you plan on ever resuming a route to the United States, whether that be Baltimore or somewhere else?

(JNS): Well, it’s not going to be Baltimore, but we’re definitely looking at the United States. There’s a great interest in Greenland in the United States, and it’s actually a very short flight from Greenland to say, New York, and it’s actually a shorter flight than the Copenhagen flight. So, yes, we are definitely looking at expanding towards the west, but the main constraint at the moment is that all the hotel capacity, the receiving capacity increment is close to maximum at the moment, so we could open a route, but then we’ll just cannibalize passengers from other regions because the whole system is running at close to max capacity at the moment. When the new airports open that will definitely make investing easier and more attractive, and we are seeing a lot of projects at the moment maturing. So, I think within a few years time, we’ll definitely see expansion toward the west.

(AG): In the 2022 annual report, Air Greenland mentioned they signed a letter of intent to increase strategic cooperation through codeshare with Icelandair. What does this mean exactly and how do you continue to act upon this going forward into the future?

(JNS): Icelandair is geographically well located in the North Atlantic and they have a very strong international network. Especially the North American network is very interesting for agreement, and as I mentioned earlier if we’re going to increase [service] towards the west, to the U.S., the codeshare agreement with Icelandair is a very important step in building the traffic and can benefit both airlines, especially at the current time where, as I mentioned, the capacity is constrained.

So, I think through Icelandair we will be able to expand and build the Greenlandic tourism industry in sort of organic implements, utilizing their very strong international network to the benefit of both companies. One of the prerequisites for such a partnership is IOSA certification, and we estimate to be IOSA certified by the spring of next year [Spring 2024], and then we can start acting upon the intentions that we have signed together.

(AG): It’s been just slightly over a year since your new flagship A330-800neo was delivered to you. How has the first year been with the aircraft? Have you seen any challenges that have been unexpected or expected?

(JNS): The first year has been great and the aircraft has outperformed the expectations both in terms of reliability and in terms of fuel consumption, and it’s also been very, very well received by the passengers, so in every way, it has been a great success. It was at the time, and it is still is the biggest investment in the company’s history, so of course as CEO, you are a little bit anxious when you get the keys and you start operating the aircraft. But, a year down the road it’s all smiles and we are so happy with the aircraft, and it has been the right decision for our airline. The only problem was with two GPS antennas, and we had those switched and that’s the only problem that we’ve had with the aircraft itself.

There was a ground handling incident in Copenhagen, where the handling agent towed the aircraft into an A320 and both aircraft lost [and were damaged], but you can’t really blame that on the aircraft. So, apart from that, we haven’t had any issues at all.

Passing by the Airbus A330-800neo engine (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): What is the first thing that you want passengers to know when they step on board your new flagship versus the older A330-200?

(JNS): Well, first of all, we want people to feel that they are already in Greenland when they enter the aircraft, and that was true in the old aircraft and in the new aircraft. But of course, with the new aircraft, we want our customers, our passengers to feel that they have entered into a modern aircraft and feel that this is a professional airline that operates modern, well-maintained, and nice-looking aircraft, equipment, that is comfortable for the passengers and I think you get that feel when you get into the aircraft that it’s well maintained, it’s nice looking, it’s well thought out, and that’s basically what we want people to feel. With the IFE, the inflight entertainment system, which is all designed in-house by our own marketing people, it’s the same thing, we want to give people a different experience than just your standard IFE, we want people to get the feel for everything that Greenland has to offer in terms of culture, people, nature, experiences, and so on.

(AG): I know the trunk route of your airline is your Greenland to Copenhagen flight. Do you tend to see more passengers or more cargo on that route?

(JNS): Well we definitely see a year-on-year growth in passengers. I think on the cargo side, the demand is there, but with the current infrastructure we have bottlenecks that limit the amount of cargo that we can bring in, and especially in times of bad weather and irregularities, the cargo is held up for quite a long time and it takes a long time to clear the backlogs, and that sort of puts a limit to the cargo growth. But I think with the new airport opening in June, we will also see significant growth in cargo numbers. So over the last few years, it’s definitely had passenger growth, not cargo, but I expect the cargo to pick up as soon as we have the bottlenecks removed with the new infrastructure.

Long Dash 8 Flights

(AG): You also fly a route to Iceland from Greenland, does that route see more cargo or passengers given it’s on a Dash 8?

(JNS): That’s definitely passengers because it’s a very long flight in a Dash 8, so you’re limited on your payload. This basically means that there are times with headwinds where you can’t even do a full load of passengers and that also limits the amount of cargo that we can bring on that job, so that’s definitely a passenger-focused route and not so much cargo.

An Air Greenland Dash-8~200 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): You operate a single long-haul aircraft, the A330neo, eight Dash-8s, helicopters, and medevac. How does the airline handle the complexity of this multi-aircraft system as each plane is so very different from the next?

(JNS): That’s a difficult task, and the only way that we can handle it is by employing really, really, really skilled people with many years of experience and professionals who know their stuff. So, we have probably, within the European system, the most complicated Air Operator Certificate of all. And, that of course is a difficult task, but I’ll definitely hand that to our very, very skilled people and our very engaged and loyal staff. Whether it be in flight operations or technical ground operations, and that’s, that’s how we make it work. We’re not a lot of people here but we have very dedicated people that have been doing this for a long, long time, so it’s people who make it work.

(AG): As the Dash-8s increase in cycles/hours flown, will they be replaced with other newer Dash-8s or with a different aircraft type?

(JNS): The Dash-8~200 that we operate, they’re all modified by the way to fit our current operating environment. It’s a great aircraft, but it’s also getting old as you mentioned, and today there isn’t really a potential replacement aircraft. We are anxious to see the new ATR-42~600 STOL [Short Takeoff and Landing] version and what the capabilities of that aircraft are. So basically we have only very few options and one of them is of course expanding the runways that we operate into, and that discussion is slowly starting to unfold with the government, but we don’t really have very many options. Fortunately, the Dash-8 aircraft is limited by cycles, and we operate long legs, which means that we don’t put very many cycles on the aircraft. We still have quite a few years to go before they reach the limits, but of course, the older an aircraft gets, the more difficult it gets to get spare parts, the more expensive spare parts get, so it’s something that we’re looking at closely and following and in a few years, we need to have a plan for replacing those aircraft. Replacing them with new Dash-8s is not really an option, because they are fairly new, I think the last ~200 was built in 2009, so that’s not really an option.

(AG): You briefly mentioned that the Dash 8s are modified. How and what do you do to modify these aircraft there in Greenland?

(JNS): So all the Dash-8~200s, the ~200 was born without ground spoilers, so we’ve modified all the ~200s with ground spoilers, that’s basically to reduce the takeoff distance required and thereby increasing the potential payload during takeoffs. We also have aircraft with long-range tanks that extends the range of the aircraft. We have put glass cockpits in some of the aircraft as well. And we have also modified, or basically purchased, and developed performance data that fits our current operation in Greenland.

(AG): Interesting, I believe I was on one of those aircraft with the extended range tanks, I believe it was OY-GRP when I flew from Iceland to Greenland.

(JNS): Yeah, correct, so we increased the fuel capacity from about 2, 500 kilos (5,511.557 lbs) to 4, 500 kilos (9,920.802 lbs), which is almost an 80 percent increase of capacity, which helps.

(AG): So we’re kind of at the end of COVID now, but how did that affect your operations not only there in Greenland, but on your international flights to Iceland and Copenhagen?

(JNS): So COVID hit us really hard, in the beginning, everything was of course shut down, but we didn’t have COVID in Greenland, the government managed to keep COVID out of Greenland for a long, long time. But they were very strict on who they let into the country, so our international flights reduced to one a week in the beginning with only passengers allowed by the government. But because of the cargo demand, we had to increase the flights to three a week which were full of cargo, but we only had like 34 passengers on these flights, it’s not allowed unless you’re 30. And, the domestic network we also had to keep, you know, going around and medicine and COVID samples and so on.

So, we entered an agreement with the government, who basically purchased flight hours at cost, the cost of producing the hours, and thereby we could keep the airline going, while we didn’t have very many passengers. We had to let go of about 20, 25% of the workforce, it was pretty, it was pretty tough, but we quickly, quickly came back. We had the 2021 summer season which was really, really good, and once everyone got omicron in the beginning of 2022 and after that, you know, everyone just started flying again. we are way above pre-COVID levels now, so we are trying to forget COVID and just look forward.

(AG): Other than your flight to Iceland, I’ve noticed that there seem to be dramatically fewer flights on Sundays in your system than on any other day of the week. Why is this?

(JNS): Yeah, that’s a really, really good question because Sunday is typically the, the most busy day of the week for an airline. But that’s basically because of the system here with the airports, they are manned for six days a week so if we want to fly on Sundays, you’ll have to pay quite substantial opening fees for the airports, so it’s not really economically viable to operate a full Sunday [schedule]. We do in the summertime because we need to, but not in the wintertime, and that’s, of course, because the airports they are staffed, and if they want to do a seven-day-a-week thing with opening hours, they have to employ, of course, more staff, and there’s only one customer, and that’s an agreement. So, that’s just too expensive.

(AG): I just saw they put in new landing systems in Nuuk a couple of weeks ago with your new runway opening there in Nuuk. How do you expect the newer landing systems to affect, or I guess in this case, improve your operating there in Nuuk?

(JNS): I think it’s going to be a game-changer and is going to make a huge difference. So we’re going to get ILS, instrument landing system category one, which is of course not the best you can have, but it’s a great improvement compared to what we have today. I used to fly the Dash-8 myself as a pilot, and for the nerds out there, today we operate what is called an offset localizer approach, which basically means that you’re coming off at an angle to the airport, you’re not coming straight in, and you have to be able to see the airport today from 1.8 nautical miles away, and you can go down to about 600 feet, that’s a long way from the airport. And with a new ILS system, you can go down to 200 feet and you’ll have glideslope guidance, you’ll have nice approach slides, a wider runway, and everything. So I think that’s going to greatly improve the operational reliability and the regularity in and out of Nuuk, so we’ll be looking forward to that definitely.

Banking over Nuuk (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): I know you said you won’t be opening any new routes from Nuuk in the short term due to hotel constraints, but do you see other airlines starting new flights here? And if so, how is Air Greenland prepared to handle this competition that they’ve never really had in the past?

(JNS): Yeah, that’s a good question. Of course, if you’re looking at Nuuk and Ilulissat, there’s definitely going to be interest from other airlines, especially in the summertime because that’s when the passenger numbers are higher. If you look at the unit costs, Air Greenland is competitive, but the way the system works today where you have a combination of, you know, the domestic network and the international network, today, all international passengers, they fly on a domestic flight either going to or from. Both the international flights and the domestic flights are paying for the whole system, so to speak. So if we get into a very competitive situation, that’s going to affect the domestic network because we’ll of course have to match the prices of our competitors and that means that we’ll have to increase the prices on the domestic network and that’s going to be, of course a problem and a challenge.

As I said in the beginning of my answer, the unit cost for operating the international routes, they’re competitive, but our prices are probably a little bit higher than other operators, and that’s because we’re using that excess money to fund the domestic network, whereas in the US, you have the Essential Air Service, In Europe, you have the PSO system where the government funds some of the thinner routes. We don’t really have that system on the domestic network in Greenland, so that’s gonna be interesting to see how that plays out. If we’re gonna see too much cherry-picking from other airlines, it’s gonna be a big problem, for the whole system. Of course, we are preparing by having a competitive schedule, having a competitive product and hopefully, the passengers will choose Air Greenland over some of the other competitors that are starting services.

(AG): Your A330-800neo flies on 5% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is really great. Is there anything else you plan on doing to increase your sustainability, not only on your A330, but your domestic flights around the country?

(JNS): That’s also a good question because one of the reasons for investing in a 5% sustainable aviation fuel was to increase and to boost investments in a sustainable aviation fuel, we were that we were made possible to get SAF out of Copenhagen airport, and that’s really, really great. The big issue for airlines today is that, well, the adoption of SAF is not ramped up, it’s not scaled up to a level where anyone can get it, and so if you take too much, then you just drive up the price. So it’s a balance right now, of supply and demand, and of course, we wanna fly with as much sustainable aviation fuel as possible, but it’s also a matter of driving inventions. If you look at the helicopters we’ve switched the whole helicopter fleet, and especially the change from the old Bell 212 helicopters to the new Airbus 155 helicopters, reduces CO2 emissions by around 40%, which is, you know, a great reduction. On the Dash-8 domestic fleet, we have a lot of initiatives on direct routings, optimum descents, apps that optimize our settings on each flight, and so on. So, yes, we’re doing a lot of things, we are changing all our ground equipment to electrified equipment and so on, so we’re doing all, all that we can. And, of course, we don’t think it’s going fast enough but we are trying to drive the initiatives as far as we can.

One of Air Greenland’s now retired Bell 212’s (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): Iif there was one thing you could improve about the airline, what would it be?

(JNS): Definitely better weather, I would improve the weather. The weather is our biggest challenge, and so, of course, I can’t change the weather. But, if we were to improve our operations, and if we could deal with the weather conditions in a more optimum way, that would increase the experience for our customers. So we are lacking approach aids at many of the airports. If we could get better landing systems, not just in Nuuk and Ilulissat, but also on the coastal airports, that would greatly improve the operation.

Editor’s Note: A video account of this interview can be found below.

Joey Gerardi
Latest posts by Joey Gerardi (see all)

Author

  • Joey Gerardi

    Joe has always been interested in planes, for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Central New York during the early 2000s when US Airways Express turboprops ruled the skies. Being from a non-aviation family made it harder for him to be around planes and would only spend about three hours a month at the airport. He was so excited when he could drive by himself and the first thing he did with the license was get ice cream and go plane spotting for the entire day. When he has the time (and money) he likes to take spotting trips to any location worth a visit. He’s currently enrolled at Western Michigan University earning a degree in Aviation Management and Operations.

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