While low-cost carriers play a key role in the short-haul market, the long-haul sector has been harder to crack for such operators. However, owing to the country's strategic location, one Icelandic airline made this work for several decades in the postwar era. This is the story of Icelandic Airlines, otherwise known as Loftleiðir.

Initially a domestic carrier

Loftleiðir Icelandic was formed in March 1944 by three young pilots who had temporarily left the country to complete flight training in Canada. One of these was 24-year-old Alfreð Elíasson, who was the subject of a 2009 documentary that told his and the airline's story. The carrier commenced operations a month later.

Starting in April 1944, Loftleiðir Icelandic initially operated domestic routes. The first of these connected Reykjavík with Ísafjörður, using a Stinson Reliant. In its early years, the airline also operated the famous Douglas DC-3, and even deployed flying boats such as the Consolidated PBY Catalina and the Grumman Goose.

The airline eventually began to look beyond Iceland's borders, although it had to wait a little longer than it would have liked. Originally planning to receive a Douglas DC-4 in 1946, delays pertaining to the aircraft's interior (caused by the bankruptcy of the company responsible) meant that international flights couldn't begin until 1947.

Loftleider Icelandic Douglas DC-8
The Douglas DC-8 was a key jet age-era aircraft for the carrier. Photo: Ian Cole via Flickr

The international boom

Once the DC-4 in question had arrived, Loftleiðir Icelandic arrived on the international stage by operating a flight from Reykjavík to Copenhagen on June 17th, 1947. This took place on Icelandic National Day. As well as using the aircraft for European flights, it also flew further afield on charters to the likes of South America.

In the late 1940s, the airline expanded further afield, after gaining permission to serve New York's Idlewild Airport (now JFK) with a second DC-4. In the early 1950s, competition with Flugfélag Íslands prompted Loftleiðir to withdraw from the domestic sector and focus its efforts solely on the transatlantic market.

This proved a fruitful decision, as the airline came to realize that Iceland's location between mainland Europe and North America was a strategic advantage. In this regard, it was able to use its Reykjavík base as a stopover between the continents, as long as it sold the two legs separately to comply with freedoms of the air. This lowered operating costs, with the savings reflected in its fares.

The Icelandair Group has retained the Loftleiðir branding for its charter division. Photo: Balazs Pinter via Wikimedia Commons

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A pioneer of low-cost long-haul flying

Having discovered this operational advantage, Loftleiðir Icelandic quickly became a favorite among young tourists from Europe and North America wanting to cross the Atlantic. Among these were none other than Bill and Hillary Clinton. The carrier's role saw it become known as the 'hippie airline' among its passengers and crew.

The airline's story eventually came to an end in 1979, when it was merged with its former rival Flugfélag Íslands to form Icelandair. However, the Icelandic flag carrier has since revived the Loftleiðir brand for its charter operations, such as research trips to Antarctica. Its legacy lives on in the sense that PLAY is also looking to utilize Iceland's location to offer low-cost, one-stop transatlantic flights.

Did you know about Loftleiðir Icelandic? Perhaps you even flew with the carrier back in the day? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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