Icelandic Airlines

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Loftleidir logo.png
IATA ICAO Callsign
Founded 1944
Ceased operations 1979
(merged in 1973 with Flugfélag Íslands to form Icelandair)
Hubs Reykjavík Airport
Focus cities John F. Kennedy International Airport
Luxembourg Airport
Headquarters Reykjavík, Iceland
Key people Kristjan Gudlaugsson (Chairman, 1970)
Sigurdur Helgason (vice-chairman, from 1953)
Alfred Eliasson (co-founder and CEO from 1953)

Loftleiðir HF, internationally known as Icelandic Airlines (abbreviated IAL) or Loftleiðir Icelandic,[1] was a private Icelandic airline headquartered on the grounds of Reykjavík Airport in Reykjavík,[2] which operated mostly trans-atlantic flights linking Europe and America, pioneering the low-cost flight business strategy on these routes.



Loftleiðir (the name being a compound of the Icelandic words for Air and Way) was founded on 10 March 1944, by Alfred Eliasson and two other young Icelandic pilots who had just returned from flight training in Canada. The first revenue flight (from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður) took place on 6 April of that year.[3] During the initial years, only domestic routes out of Reykjavík Airport were operated using airplanes of the types Douglas DC-3, Consolidated PBY Catalina,[4] Stinson Reliant, Grumman Goose,[3] Noorduyn Norseman, Avro Anson and Vultee L-1 Vigilant.[5] The first international flight (from Reykjavík to Copenhagen) using a Douglas DC-4 took place on 17 June 1947, the Icelandic National Day. Loftleiðir had expected to take delivery of the DC-4 already in 1946 (the first Icelandic airline to operate an airliner of that size and range), but the delivery was delayed because of the bankruptcy of the interior outfitter.[3] Initially, the DC-4 was deployed on flights to Europe, as well as on chartered flights for third party companies, for example from Britain to South America.[3]

In 1948, Loftleiðir was granted governmental approval to operate passenger services to the United States of America, which were launched in August of that year when a second DC-4 joined the fleet, with New York's Idlewild Airport as first destination.[6] In 1949 and 1950, the DC-4s were leased to U.S. carrier Seaboard & Western Airlines because of the difficult financial situation Loftleiðir was in during that period.[3]

Since Loftleiðir had launched domestic flights in the 1940s, there had been a fierce competition with Flugfélag Íslands, which had prompted the Icelandic government to divide the network between the two airlines, when the originally proposed merger had been rejected. The management of Loftleiðir claimed to have been disfavoured in this measure,[citation needed] and decided to cease all domestic services in 1952, fully concentrating on transatlantic flights henceforth.[7] Typical routings at that time where from New York via Reykjavík to Hamburg or Luxembourg, with intermediate stops at Oslo, Copenhagen, Bergen, Stavanger or Gothenburg.[8]

From 1955 onwards, Luxembourg-Findel Airport was the European starting point for most of Loftleiðir's transatlantic flights.[9] With the introduction of the Douglas DC-6 into the fleet in 1959, the DC-4s were gradually phased out.[10]

In 1964, Loftleiðir started operating its first Canadair CL-44D-4, and two years later the first of its four CL-44Js, a variant of the CL-44D4 stretched on request by Canadair. Loftleiðir was the only passenger operator of the turboprop, which was used as a cargo plane by other airlines.[11] It was the largest passenger aircraft flying over the Atlantic Ocean at that time, carrying up to 189 passengers.[12][13] Loftleiðir marketed the CL-44J under the name "Rolls-Royce 400 PropJet". This led to the confusion that the CL-44J is sometimes referred to as the Canadair-400.[14] At that time, the company had 1,000 employees.[7]

The late sixties were an exciting time for Loftleiðir.[15] In 1969 the company acquired International Air Bahama, a small airline operating Boeing 707 jets out of the Bahamas,[16] and a year later Loftleiðir became one of the founders of Cargolux, a thriving cargo airline. Also in 1970, Loftleiðir entered the jet age with its first two stretched Douglas DC-8-63 "Super DC-8" jetliners. In 1971 the company started flying between Iceland and Scandinavia with the slightly smaller DC-8-55.[17]

The growing competition from Flugfélag Íslands and the economical pressure during the 1970s energy crisis led to the merger of the two airlines in 1973 into one holding company, which was called Flugleiðir. In 1979, Flugfélag Íslands acquired all assets of Loftleiðir, and the airline became known as Icelandair.[18]

The Loftleidir branding re-emerged in 2003, when the newly created wet-lease and charter subsidiary of Icelandair Group was named Loftleidir Icelandic.[19]

Pioneering low-cost flights[edit]

An Icelandic Airlines advertisement from May 1973, in New York's historic Fifth Avenue.

The geographical position of Iceland in the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and America allowed Loftleiðir to offer passenger flights between the two continents with an intermediate stop at its home airport at Reykjavík, thus operating at lower costs because of easier aircraft and crew logistics than its European or American competitors. The airline was chosen by many young Americans as a cheap means of travel to Europe, which earned it the title Hippie Airline from the late 1960s. During different state visits to Iceland, Bill and Hillary Clinton both remembered the experience of their flights with Loftleiðir.[20]

During those years, Loftleiðir were often referred to, even by the company's own staff, as "the Hippie Airline" or even "the Hippie Express".[21][22] Many young Americans travelled to Europe after graduation, to experience the "old-world culture" and they were more concerned with getting there cheaply than comfortably or even exactly on time. Loftleiðir were not famous for speed or punctuality, but flying with the company became a sort of rite of passage for those young "hippies", one of whom was Bill Clinton, later US President.[20][23]

In fact, when Hillary Clinton, the ex-president's wife and then US Secretary of State and presidential candidate, met with her Icelandic counterpart, Össur Skarphéðinsson, in May 2011, she fondly remembered the role Loftleiðir had played in enabling young Americans to travel to Europe. She still recalled Loftleiðir's sometime slogan from these years: "We are the slowest but the lowest."[24]

In order to comply with then-valid freedoms of the air restrictions, tickets for transatlantic flights were issued in two parts (to/from Iceland, as Loftleiðir as an Icelandic airline was only allowed to transport passengers to and from its country of registry), but stopovers were held as short as one hour, with no changing of the aircraft required.[8] Because Loftleiðir had not joined the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which at that time defined the fares for its member airlines on transatlantic routes, it could offer considerably lower ticket prices.[25] Sigurdur Helgason, who had joined the board of the airline in 1953, is credited to have introduced this strategy. The New York Times called him a "low-cost travel pioneer."[15]

Airline co-operations[edit]

Between 1952 and 1962, Loftleiðir co-operated with the Norwegian airline Braathens SAFE on the transatlantic routes on a codeshare-like basis, as well as maintenance, inspection, overhaul and repairs.[26][27][28] When the European focus shifted from Scandinavia to Luxemburg, this partnership was terminated.

Air Bahama, a small airline from the Bahamas, was acquired in 1969.[7] In 1970, Loftleiðir became one of the founding shareholders of Cargolux, along with Luxair and several private investors.


Over the years, the following aircraft types were operated:[29]

Loftleiðir fleet history
Aircraft Introduced Retired
Avro Anson
Canadair CL-44
Douglas DC-3
Douglas C-54 Skymaster
Douglas DC-4
Douglas DC-6
Douglas DC-8
Grumman Goose
Noorduyn Norseman
Stinson Reliant
Vultee L-1 Vigilant

Accidents and incidents[edit]

  • On 13 March 1947, a Loftleiðir Grumman JRF-6B with seven passengers and a pilot crashed immediately after a takeoff on Hvammsfjordur by the town of Budardalur in Iceland. The pilot and 4 other passengers were rescued by a boat after they got themselves out of the plane. 3 passengers never got out of the plane and went down with it under water. One of the passengers that was rescued didn't survive. The pilot and 3 passengers survived. 4 passengers were killed.
  • On 14 September 1950, a Loftleiðir Douglas C-54 Skymaster (registered TF-RVC, named Geysir) crashed into the Vatnajökull glacier. Six crew members were on this cargo flight from Luxembourg to Reykjavík (the first service for the airline on that route). All occupants survived, but were not found until 18 September, as the crash site was unknown and search efforts focused elsewhere. The occupants were not rescued until 20 September, due to the difficulty of reaching the location on the glacier.[3][30][31][32]
  • On 23 June 1973, a Loftleiðir Douglas DC-8 (registered N8960T) was damaged in a tail-first landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, when it completed Flight 509 on the Stockholm-Oslo-Reykjavík-New York route with 119 passengers and nine crew members on board. An NTSB investigation found that the accident was caused by a flawed procedure when the spoilers were extended (right after touchdown rather than once the landing gear had been lowered).[33]
  • On 15 November 1978, a Douglas DC-8 (registered TF-FLA), operating for Garuda Indonesia, missed the runway upon approach of Colombo Airport in Sri Lanka during a chartered Hajj pilgrimage flight from Jeddah and crashed. 181 passengers died in the accident, 74 passengers and 5 crew members survived. Icelandic Airlines Flight LL 001 was a Loftleiðir flight number, even though the company had merged with Flugfélag Íslands at that time.[34][35]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Alfred Eliasson & Loftleiðir Icelandic is a 2009 documentary film from Iceland, which tells the story of the airline and one of its founders, narrated in Icelandic by Arnar Jónsson.[36]


  1. ^ Loftleiðir timetables at
  2. ^ "World Airline Directory." Flight International. 13 April 1967. 578. "Head Office: Reykjavík Airport, Iceland."
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Island's first airline: a nation takes to the air", article by the Lögberg, published 2 October 1992
  4. ^ Hall Air Pictorial September 1971, p. 344.
  5. ^ Information about Loftleiðir at (in Icelandic)
  6. ^ Morgunbladid article about Loftleiðir service to America (published on 27 August 1998), at (in Icelandic).
  7. ^ a b c Flight International 26 March 1970
  8. ^ a b Loftleidir 1955 timetable, at
  9. ^ Morgunbladid article about the operations of Loftleiðir in Luxemburg (published 22 May 2005), at (in Icelandic)
  10. ^ History of Loftleiðir's flights out of Luxembourg-Findel Airport at
  11. ^ Photos: Canadair CL-44D4-2 Aircraft Pictures |
  12. ^ Ágrip Af Sögu Atvinnuflugs Á Íslandi
  13. ^ Information about Loftleiðir and other Icelandic airlines at (in Icelandic)
  14. ^ Stamp: Canadair 400 (Iceland) Is433
  15. ^ a b Brothers, Caroline (17 February 2009). "Sigurdur Helgason, 87, Airfare Pioneer, Dies". The New York Times. 
  16. ^, International Air Bahama system timetables
  17. ^ Grein - Flugstjórar Skymaster-vélarinnar Heklu -
  18. ^ Information about Icelandair at the Aero Transport Data Bank
  19. ^ Official website of Loftleiðir Icelandic
  20. ^ a b Steingrímsdóttir, Steinunn Edda (23 May 2011). "Icelandair hafði áhrif á samband Hillary og Bill Clintons - Hitti Össur fyrir stundu í USA" (in Icelandic). Pressan. Retrieved 23 May 2011. 
  21. ^ Luxembourg - New York - Luxembourg - a knol by Fausto Gardini
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines". knol. 
  24. ^
  25. ^ Morgunbladid article, 10 March 1994 (in Icelandic)
  26. ^ - Vísir
  27. ^
  28. ^ History of Braathens at
  29. ^ Information about Loftleiðir at the Aero Transport Database
  30. ^ 1950 accident at the Aviation Safety Network
  31. ^ Timeline of the search for the Geysir at (in Icelandic)
  32. ^ Brotlent á Bárðarbungu at (in Icelandic)
  33. ^ 1973 accident at the Aviation Safety Network
  34. ^ Official investigation report into Flight 001
  35. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-08-28. Retrieved 2012-10-07. 
  36. ^ Alfred Eliasson & Loftleiðir Icelandic at the Internet Movie Database
  • Hall, Alan W. (September 1971). "Lofteiðir Icelandic". Air Pictorial. Vol. 33 no. 9. pp. 340–344. 

External links[edit]