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What to expect when Greenland’s new airports open in 2024

In addition to taking various flights and hanging out on a helicopter and at a mine with Air Greenland’s CEO, I also spent some time in Greenland’s capital Nuuk. There is a lot of construction going on in Nuuk, and the most prominent of all its projects is the new Nuuk Airport. It’s a huge construction site with lots going on already even though it’s at least three more years until any of it is ready. Most visible is the runway extension which will see it lengthened to 2200 meters (about 7200 feet) from the current 950 m (3117 ft). Eventually there will be a brand new and bigger terminal, parking areas and more.

Counstruction visible from what will be the southern edge of Nuuk’s new extended runway.

Building a modern airport for Nuuk

Some facts and figures about the new airport, due to be ready in 2024:

The new terminal will be pproximately 8,000 square meters with a capacity of 800 passengers per hour.The construction will involve blasting about 6 million cubic meters of rock. Roughly half of that has already happened, using 2200 tons of explosives to date.ILS equipment will be put in place, as well as AFIS service with a turbulence warning system.The highest approach mast will be 70 meters (230 feet) tall.People from 17 different countries are currently involved in the construction project (and growing).

In the meantime the existing Nuuk Airport is still functioning as normal, though during my visit they were getting ready to close the old road leading up to it and readying the new one that would take its place – and in a bit of a rush before the first snow of the season started falling.

Gabriel Leigh Nuuk Airport
The author touring the Nuuk Airport construction site.

Overseeing the project: Kalaallit Airports

Kalaallit Airports is the company formed by the Greenlandic government in 2017 to oversee the project here and in Ilulissat, which will also get a new and improved airport. The company will take over operation of the new airports once they’re finished. After firms from various parts of the world (notably China) bid for the contract to build the new airports, the Danish government decided they would like to make sure they had a stake in this, and in 2018 a financing deal with very favorable rates was made with the Danish government. Denmark now owns one-third of the project in Nuuk and Ilulissat. Two-thirds of the funding is coming from Denmark in all, while one-third is coming from the Greenland government.

Construction Nuuk Airport
An enormous construction site surrounds the existing Nuuk Airport.

After visiting the airport site I had the chance to speak to Aviaaja Karlshøj Knudsen, the Executive Project Director at Kalaallit Airports. She is in charge of making sure the new airports at Nuuk and Ilulissat are everything they should be. Knudsen gave some insight into the new airports project and how Kalaallit Airports is approaching it, as well as the implications it will have for Greenland’s development and especially its tourism industry.

“It’s going to open a lot of opportunities”

Here’s what Knudsen had to say. (The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

FR24: Give us the lay of the land – what is the situation like now with Greenland’s airports?

Aviaaja Karlshøj Knudsen: The infrastructure that we have in Greenland today, Kangerlussuaq, and the other airport that could receive flights from Europe, Narsarsuaq, they’re both former US military bases. And they were placed from a strategic perspective. Kangerlussuaq is deep in the fjord and has very steady weather. It’s very seldom that you can’t land a plane there. Because none of these airports are near our major cities it makes the flight infrastructure quite expensive, and it takes a long time for us to travel. It takes a full day to go to Europe and a full day to go back, and that’s not very effective. It’s also expensive.

So the situation today is not very good for us to develop tourism, which Greenland would like to do. And also for our own citizens to travel. So in 2015 they finally made this political package that everyone could sign off on.

[Editorial note: the agreement included construction of three new airports: Nuuk, Ilulissat, and Qaqortoq in the south. The Qaqortoq project is currently in limbo as the government has not been able to agree with a contractor on the price. Currently, Qaqortoq is only accessible via scheduled helicopter service, or ferry.]

Nuuk Airport construction
View facing west from the construction site at Nuuk Airport

FR24: How important are the new airports going to be?

AKK: This is a key element to develop Greenland. You can get direct flights to major cities. We do have some tourism but it’s very vulnerable to the setup in Kangerlussuaq. And the prices are high. Then of course there’s the citizens here, and the cargo – if you can’t fit it in the small planes you can’t fly it to the major cities. There’s also the discussion about maybe exporting more fresh fish. This opportunity would look a lot more promising if you could fly larger planes direct to cities in Europe or North America. So I think this is really the key for the next step in developing Greenland. It’s going to open a lot of opportunities for us.

FR24: Do you expect a tourism boom starting in 2024?

AKK: Regarding the tourism, we really have to plot a strategy for how we want our tourism to look. Because once these projects are finished the gateway is open, and we could fly planes in all day, but Greenland can’t really support so many tourists so they’ve got to have a strategy about it. Nevertheless this opens up so many possibilities.

It will be interesting to see how it’s going to play out. Who’s going to take the risks? We’re scaling up – probably too slowly, but it’s got to develop in a pace that Greenland can handle. And we look very much of course to Iceland, because of the ideas that they get and the things that they do. They really have great entrepreneurship over there.

And they have so many tourists. That’s not what Greenland is aiming for. But it took Iceland a long time to be able to actually handle their own success and get enough hotels and so on. Also the Faroe Islands are quite interesting for us because they lengthened their runway 6 years ago and now have better regularity there, which made it interesting for SAS to open a competitive route. And what we hear is that it’s going well. Atlantic Airways still has its passengers and the Faroe Islands has more tourists. I think it will be similar here.

I think we’re really clear on what kind of tourism we want. We really don’t want mass tourism, we want high-end tourism. People who want to of course lay down some money here locally but also hiking tourism and so on. So there’s a focus on this strategy which doesn’t really appeal to low cost carriers and groups of 100 people that are just coming in to take 100 pictures and board the plane and fly out. But of course it’s going to be interesting to see how this is going to play out once the airports are here. Because the airports are going to provide the possibilities.

FR24: Do you expect a number of airlines to start service to Greenland?

AKK: Even once we get these new airports Greenland is never going to be a cheap destination. So I don’t think we’re going to see these really low-cost carriers. That’s one thing. The other thing is that in this company we’re going to run the airports, so we tend to the route development and new destinations. There’s a lot of interest in Greenland. But in reality I think it would be a success for us if we got just one new operator in. And you have to also be able to sell the seats – so I don’t think we’re going to see a situation like that. But if we saw perhaps Norwegian or SAS come in, it would be a success. I don’t think we’ll see Ryanair because we’re going to have fees that will make it not an attractive destination for them.

FR24: Could you see Nuuk becoming something like a transatlantic hub?

AKK: It’s not a goal for us to become a hub like Keflavik. And I don’t think it’s ever going to be. It’s weather-related first of all. We’re not going to hit a 99% regularity in Nuuk – these new runways are going to have some great technical equipment that will enable planes to set down in foggy weather with low visibility and so on, but we do have windy days in Nuuk when there will be no flights. And that would be a factor for this to become a hub.We’re also not going to have a big apron area where we could have ten planes on hold.

A typical scene Nuuk downtown
A typical scene in downtown Nuuk.

FR24: What kind of new routes do you expect to see in Ilulissat?

AKK: I know in Ilulissat they’re reaching out to the Canadians and Alaskans because there’s cultural relations there that Greenland has always wanted to be stronger, but also because the new airport would make it more possible to fly cargo in from Canada and Alaska. They wish to make a stronger trade relationship.

FR24: Does building better links to places besides Denmark have anything to do with the independence question?

AKK: We have a relationship with Denmark that goes back forever, and there’s a lot of very strong ties through family, and history and so on. And I think we’re very loud in the political debate about challenging that because initially Greenland wants what every country wants, 100 percent independence. But I think the ties are not cut that easily. And I don’t think it’s going to hurt Greenland to trade more with the US or have some arrangements at some scale, but I think we’re never going to let go of this setup with Denmark in the long-term.

FR24: Has there been any opposition to the new airports?

AKK: There is some opposition. And skepticism. There’ve been some people that are against this. It’s a lot of government money. But the day we finish this I think it will be different. We have a real opportunity here. The world’s eyes are on us. And we should think that everything you want to make happen here, you can. And I think that’s going to give us a big win here. But it takes time to build up these things. You don’t fill up an airplane just like that.


Still want more?

If you’re still hungry for more Greenland, don’t miss our latest video filmed onboard a sightseeing flight over the Ilulissat icefjord in a Eurocopter AS350:

The post What to expect when Greenland’s new airports open in 2024 appeared first on Flightradar24 Blog.

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