Greenland’s national airline company Grønlandsfly was founded in 1960, before changing its name to Air Greenland in 2002.
During the company’s early years Catalina planes were used which could land both on water and on the runways in Narsarsuaq and Kangerlussuaq that were constructed by the American forces during the Second World War. When planes were due to land the runway had to be cleared of icebergs and ice floes, and every town had a unique airport code which was painted on a number of roofs on the houses in the town.
In 1965 heliports were established in all towns, and flights were carried out by S-61 helicopters, which could carry up to 20 passengers. At that time the total flight network in Greenland was around 3,000 km, which was the world’s longest air network serviced by helicopters. 15,000 passengers were transported annually, a figure that had risen to 50,000 just a decade later.
The need for both goods and passenger transport increased as a result of the rapid development that Greenland was undergoing in the 1960s and 1970s. As helicopters were – and still are – expensive to run, transport gradually began to shift over to fixed-wing aircraft. Airports were built – first in Nuuk in 1979 and then in Ilulissat in 1983. Later the majority of towns along the west coast got their own airport. Since 2010 the domestic fleet has been upgraded with the faster and more environmentally-friendly Dash-8 plane. Today these aeroplanes serve the majority of routes in Greenland and the routes to Iceland and Canada.
Air Greenland is also responsible for search and rescue (often abbreviated to SAR), and functions as an ambulance if patients need to be evacuated to a major hospital or for treatment in Denmark. Furthermore, Air Greenland provides helicopters to assist in mineral exploration and performs chartered tasks both in and outside Greenland. Air Greenland’s aircraft and equipment have been involved in jobs in territories as diverse as Antarctica, Nepal and Africa.
At the end of the 1990s Air Greenland decided to take on SAS, which had hitherto held a monopoly on scheduled services between Greenland and Denmark. Air Greenland purchased a jet aircraft, and after only a couple of years SAS turned its back on the provision of services on a year-round basis. Air Greenland is thus the only airline offering flights all year round between Denmark and Kangerlussuaq and Narsarsuaq respectively. During the winter months there are four weekly flights, whilst the summer sees seven weekly flights to Kangerlussuaq.
The growth in the number of passengers has seen an upward trend from 15,000 passengers in 1965 to 390,000 in 2012.