Running an airline at the edge of the world: Jacob Nitter Sørensen, CEO Air Greenland

The most recent installment of Executive Spotlight showed what it takes to run an airline in the middle of a war, and this time we are literally traveling to the edge of the world, to learn how an airline can thrive in one of the planet’s most unforgiving environments. 

Air Greenland is the national carrier of the world’s second largest island (after Australia), a huge territory which, despite its name, is mostly, permanently covered in ice. 

It’s not just that the weather conditions are extreme for most of the year. Air Greenland needs to provide basic services to a population of under 60,000 scattered over a landmass that, if it was overlaid onto a map of mainland Europe, would stretch all the way from Norway to North Africa. 

To do this, Air Greenland relies on what is one of the most eclectic fleets operated by a flag carrier anywhere in the world, including a rather rare type of long-haul, wide-body aircraft, a fleet of regional turboprops, some helicopters – and soon, perhaps eVTOLs too. 

AeroTime has spoken with Jacob Nitter Sørensen, CEO of Air Greenland, in order to learn more about this unique airline and the essential role it plays in the economy of this autonomous Danish territory.  

A unique operational profile

Our conversation with Nitter Sørensen started with us talking, inevitably, about the large diversity of aircraft types Air Greenland operates and the different roles they fulfill, in a community that is totally dependent on air travel to be able to function normally. 

Nitter Sørensen said: “The low-cost carriers always say you need to keep a single-type fleet, but we operate with a different model. Why do we do that? It is due to the geography, the environment and the demographics we serve. We are the bus service, the train service, the ambulance service, the mail service… we provide most of the infrastructure necessary to keep the country going. In order to fulfill all these tasks, you need different equipment. This is why we have such a diversified fleet.”  

In addition to guaranteeing a regular air link to Denmark more than 2,000 miles away, Air Greenland is also a provider of regional mobility between Greenland’s different towns. It performs a whole range of on-demand missions, as diverse as tourist and panoramic flights, medical evacuation and search and rescue services. 

But it is not just the diversity of fleet and missions that makes for the complexity of Air Greenland’s operations. They are also shaped by notorious constraints in airport infrastructure. Almost all civilian airports in Greenland have runways that are under 1,000 meters in length and the island’s main international gateway, Kangerlussuaq Airport (SFJ), a former US Air Force base, is located nowhere near the island’s main population centers. 

Kangerlussuaq Airport is in fact nearly 200 miles north of Nuuk, the island’s main town, and there is no land transportation whatsoever between them.  

In addition to its fleet of ten fixed winged aircraft, which includes one Airbus A330-800neo, eight De Havilland Canada Dash-8 Q200 and one Beechcraft B2250 King Air which is used mainly in medical services, Air Greenland also operates helicopters. Its rotorcraft fleet includes seven H155s, two Airbus H225s, which are used mainly for search and rescue missions, and nine Eurocopter AS350s – a model now rebranded as Airbus Helicopters H125. Another nine H125 are on order with Airbus. 

“I used to tell people that we operate nine Airbus 350s and only when seeing their faces of disbelief did I clarify that I was talking about the single-engine helicopter, not the long-haul jet!” Nitter Sørensen laughed. 

Air Greenland does indeed have a long-haul wide-body aircraft, and a rather special one, since the airline is one of only three current operators of the Airbus A330-800neo. Only seven aircraft of this type have been delivered by Airbus, the other two operators being Kuwait Airways and Uganda Airlines. 

Talking about the reasons for this choice, Nitter Sørensen explained that, when they started to look for a replacement for the A330-200, very few aircraft types fitted the very specific commercial and operational profile of Air Greenland. In the end, the available choices were reduced to the Boeing 787-8 and the Airbus A330-800neo, with the final decision coming down to the minutiae of negotiations with both aircraft makers. 

Since Air Greenland uses the A330 on the 5-6 hour-long flight to Copenhagen, relatively briefer than the typical long-haul route for which the aircraft was designed, it can take off from fairly short runways by flying lighter, a few tons below maximum take-off weight. 

The airline’s brand-new A330-800neo, which arrived in December 2022, replaced an Airbus A330-200 (registration OY-GRN), which had been plying the Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen (CPH) route for twenty years. 

Nitter Sørensen was full of praise for this new arrival to the fleet. “The A330-800neo is performing really, really well in terms of technical reliability, customer satisfaction, and especially on the fuel side. It has really reduced our fuel burn a lot. It is very noticeable,” he remarked. 

“This aircraft is the link between Greenland and Europe and it transports all sorts of passengers, cargo and mail,” Nitter Sørensen elaborated. “Once in Greenland, we distribute them with our Dash-8 fleet. Sometimes you may even need to take a helicopter ride to get to your final destination. We fly to 46 heliports and 15 airports. It’s a very complex network, but one without much volume.” 

The only other regular air link to the outside world is via Iceland, with Air Greenland and Icelandair cooperating on routes between Keflavik and four smaller airports in Greenland: Nuuk (GOH), Ilulissat (JAV), Kulusuk (KUS) and Narsarsuaq (UAK). 

Betting on sustainable tourism

In fact, the last decade has seen a surge of interest in the far north and the Arctic as tourist destinations. Places like Iceland and the Faroe Islands have seen visitor numbers rocket over recent years. A similar phenomenon has been experienced by Greenland, with 2022 being a record year in terms of tourist arrivals.  

Nitter Sørensen explained that this is the result of the country’s strategic choices: “15 years ago, the oil industry was very interested in Greenland. There was even some drilling going on, but the local government decided against it and opted to develop sustainable tourism as an avenue for economic growth instead.” 

Air Greenland is not a passive beneficiary of this trend, but an active player throughout the tourism value chain in Greenland. It even operates its own hotels and tour operators. 

“When the strategic decision was made to develop the tourism industry, we went all-in in this direction,” Nitter Sørensen explained. “Air Greenland owns a travel agency and a hotel, and we offer also lodges and activities. We are involved in the whole value chain, and this is also to offer quality products, to have control over the product, and to maximize value for the customers and for the company. We operate throughout the value chain. You can book a plane ticket, a hotel room and even rent a kayak with us.”  

As for the hard limits of this growth, Nitter Sørensen said: “The main constraint we have now is receptive capacity. The hotels are pretty much fully booked in the high season, so we need to increase hotel capacity in order to develop the tourism economy further.” 

Air Greenland has already its own 110-room four star hotel, but now it is already planning to open another one to cater for growing demand. 

The figures involved in the Greenlandic tourism boom may sound modest compared to those handled by other tourist destinations, but they are significant for a territory with less than 60,000 inhabitants. 

While Air Greenland carried a total of 430,000 passengers in 2022 (two thirds of them domestic), the number of international visitors was around 90,000. Of these, 85% arrived on the airline’s A330 flight from Copenhagen, with the remainder flying in from Iceland. 

In fact, the Icelandic connection may hold the key to a huge untapped market: the US. 

Despite technically being part of North America (during his presidency, Donald Trump even toyed with the idea of ‘bidding’ to acquire Greenland), the island receives only around 3,000 American visitors per year. 

Nitter Sørensen explained that Air Greenland had done some testing of responses from the American market in the past, and it didn’t work out as expected. One of the main issues that came up was the infrastructure in Greenland. 

“There is interest for Greenland in the North American market, but we still have the accommodation constraints. We could possibly fill a plane or two a week, but this would cannibalize traffic from our European operation, because of a lack of capacity. So, it is a step-by-step process, with a long-term perspective.” 

Air Greenland signed a letter of intent with Icelandair, an airline that already has a significant presence in the North American market, with the aim of supporting further tourism development and improving the connectivity via that airline’s Transatlantic hub at Keflavik (KEF). 

“Keflavik is very well located to serve the US market. A ticket to Keflavik and then onto Greenland on a single ticket is something customers demand,” Nitter Sørensen admitted. “By working with Icelandair we can build this market over time, and hopefully, if numbers grow, there will be potential to open a new direct route to either to New York – JFK, or some other destination where you have lots of connections to the rest of North America.”  

Either way, a stopover is currently necessary, because Greenland’s main international airport is nowhere near Greenland’s main tourist attractions. This is due to change before long, as two major airport expansion projects are due to be completed within the next couple of years. 

Extending the runways

Work is under way to expand the runways of two airports, Nuuk and Ilulissat, to a length of 2,200 meters (from the current 945 meters). A new ILS system will also be installed. When the extended runways become operational, the airports will be able to receive nonstop flights from Europe or North America. 

At the same time, a new 1,500 meter runway is being built at Qaqortoq (JJU), which is currently a heliport. When the work is completed in 2025, the south of Greenland will also have enhanced air connectivity. 

These projects will significantly expand Greenland’s capacity to receive international flights. In this regard, Nitter Sørensen confirmed the airline is looking at a potential fleet and network expansion. This may include the addition of narrowbody aircraft able to reach both mainland Europe and the US nonstop from Greenland, although no decisions have yet been made. 

However, the new airports could also bring in foreign competitors.  

“I am sure that with the improved accessibility we will see competition as well. This is something we are expecting to happen from the summer season of 2025, when the new airports will be open,” Nitter Sørensen said. He added that Air Greenland may also benefit from this, by channeling the incoming visitors through its domestic network. 

“When our parliament greenlighted investment in airport infrastructure, it did so on the basis that it should not just benefit the town where the new infrastructure is built, but all of Greenland. Visitors can then visit other parts of Greenland as well. There are lots of magnificent places that have a lot to offer,” he suggested. 

If all goes according to plan, towards the end of this decade tourists may be traveling in Air Greenland’s eVTOLs, since the airline signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Dublin-based lessor Avolon, to get access to Vertical Aerospace’s VX4 eVTOL aircraft. 

Vertical Aerospace’s VX4 is not certified yet – it completed it first untethered test flight in July 2023 – but Nitter Sørensen was optimistic: “We are possibly going to start with one or two as a proof of concept, then there is potential for a lot more.” 

Neither did he appear worried about the performance of battery-powered eVTOLs in the extreme Arctic conditions.  

“This is something we have discussed extensively and the thing is, we are going to be using eVTOLs for tourism flights, which means we are going to use them in nice weather. Battery technology is also performing well in low temperatures, so from an operational and technical perspective, the applications we are seeking of eVTOLs are perfectly feasible.” he claimed. 

Nitter Sørensen thinks eVTOL technology is also interesting from an environmental angle: 

“This is a very interesting project, because many airlines have signed orders or pre-orders for eVTOLs to use them in an urban environment, as city taxis to avoid congestion in major cities, but we have a different approach.” he explained. “We operate a CO2 neutral four-star hotel up north [Hotel Arctic in  Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – Ed. Note] as well as several luxury lodges located next to natural attractions – for example, in places where you can see huge icebergs. These places are within the realistic range of eVTOLs and they are all powered by hydroelectric power. This means we can offer emission-free touristic flights and a very sustainable experience from the beginning and all the way through. This is something that we believe customers will be demanding more and more.” 

Sustainability is a particularly important aspect of any airline operation right now, even more so in the fragile environment of the Arctic, which is likely to be one of the areas most heavily impacted by any change in global temperatures. 

“If we are to bring people to Greenland, to a fragile environment, we need to be serious about sustainability. Air travel connects people, it brings peace and prosperity. We should strive to fix the issues and make it sustainable. One of the things we are doing at Air Greenland is renewing our fleet,” Nitter Sørensen said. 

He also shared some figures about the airline’s initiatives to reduce emissions. 

“The new Airbus Helicopters H155 [with which Air Greenland replaced its 40-year-old Bell 212 fleet – ed. Note] burn less fuel, fly faster and carry more payload than their predecessors, so in practical terms we achieved about a 50% reduction in emissions. The A330-800neo burns 15% less fuel and has 10% more seats that the A330-200, so in practice we got a 25% reduction [per person]. To this one should add the reduction from the use of SAF. The board of directors made the decision, which we are already implementing, to use 5% SAF, a figure that we will hopefully be increasing.” he said with some pride, pointing out that Air Greenland was the first airline at Copenhagen airport to use SAF. “This is something we are very proud of. It is a big investment and it is part of the branding of Greenland as a sustainable destination!” 

Untamed nature 

The force and unpredictability of nature is always present in the minds of Air Greenland’s managers and it’s also something that any visitor should plan for. Regularity of operations is a less-than-optimal 90% and, of this, 85-90% is weather related. 

“Weather conditions are very much our main challenge,” emphasized Nitter Sørensen. “We do have a lot of bad weather and very difficult operating conditions. Our pilots are well trained to handle the weather, but we are very conservative in our approach to flight safety and if the weather is bad or there is any doubt about the weather conditions, we cancel the flight. When the weather is good, everything works like clockwork, but on bad weather weeks we are maybe able to operate only 35% of our schedule.” 

This means, inevitably, that Air Greenland spends a lot of money on compensation, hotels and food for passengers who get stranded, and the problem just grows with the increasing number of passengers. 

“Locals are used to this weather and know what to expect, but we understand it can be frustrating for those visitors who are used to a more seamless travel experience. If you come to Greenland, you need to know that there is a large probability of experiencing some schedule irregularities. But we are taking care of our passengers all the way, we are not leaving anyone behind,” Nitter Sørensen emphasized. He added that the airline spends about 100 million Danish Crowns per year (around US$15 / €13.5 million) to address these incidents, a rather hefty sum for such a small airline. 

Due to the remote location and weather unreliability, Air Greenland also needs to keep a large inventory of spare parts and supplies. “Maintenance costs are high, but we do also a lot of preemptive maintenance. When you have such regularity issues, it is actually quite cost-effective. This is of course reflected in the ticket prices,” Nitter Sørensen added.  

“We are owned by the government, by the people of Greenland, so everything we do is for the benefit of the people of Greenland. We are looking forward to many more people coming from all over the world to enjoy a great experience in Greenland,” he concluded. 

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