My love-hate relationship with Icelandair and its home airport

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.

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.

With more than 250 people ready to board a recent Icelandair flight to Seattle from Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, crowds milled about waiting for boarding announcements that never came. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

It wasn’t just that day. Writing April 9 on the online rating site Skytrax, reviewer A. Sharman

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