Flying to Iceland

22 March 2011

Some of remember the bad old days when Flugleiðir, as it was then, had a monopoly on flying to Iceland. It was a nightmare of arrogant service, complete inflexibility and prices that were downright outrageous.

Icelandic business has some outright bizarre ideas when it comes to competition, and the Icelandic national airline didn’t take kindly to competition when it finally did arrive. Several operators gave it a try and gave it up as a bad job, leaving the monopoly to gleefully continue to charge an arm and a leg for a three-hour hop across the North Atlantic while shovelling cash into the shareholders’ pockets.

Back then one standard return to Iceland cost as much as it would cost a family of five to travel from, say, London to Lisbon. While Iceland struggled to develop a tourist industry of sorts, the airline effectively made sure that only those with bottomless pockets or a burning desire to see the place would get there.

Then Iceland Express came along with its bucket airline ethos, cheap seats and something that was unheard of – flexibility. You could book a flight and change it later. People thought that wonders would never cease. Iceland had finally been connected to the rest of the world on terms that normal people could afford.

The Express, with its growing empire and accessible travel to a growing array of destinations was much loved and guess what? Icelandair (as it had become by then) didn’t go bankrupt overnight as its spokespeople had bleated it would. Of course, since then, it has teetered on the brink, but this was more to do with the bewildering practices of its owners than anything else – and this is where the dilemma lies.

These days the tables are turned and Icelandair is a state-owned airline since it’s owned by one of the banks that the state was forced to bail out, while Iceland Express belongs to some of the guys in black hats who have a less than savoury reputation – the ‘Export Vikings’ who so disastrously trampled roughshod over Iceland’s economy and reputation.

Iceland Express is now a shadow of its former self. The positive, helpful attitude has gone. The rows of seats are ratcheted so close together that passengers are squeezed in like pilchards in a tin without even leaving space for a dollop of sauce and there’s a laissez faire attitude to punctuality that wasn’t there before.

Pricewise, there isn’t a lot to choose between the two any more, although Icelandair appears to be a shade more expensive, especially the shorter the notice you’re looking at. Iceland Express can still give you a relatively affordable seat this week, while Icelandair probably won’t.

So who to give my cash to? The state-owned dinosaur or the dubious Export Vikings? Much as I dislike the Express with its lousy service and unsavoury owners, that’s where I’ll be booking my tickets next time. The prospect of them going under and Icelandair having the market all to itself yet again, with that bizarre Icelandic attitude to competition, simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

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