A tale of two airports by Quentin Bates

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Two airports divide Iceland. One was built by British troops in the Second World War in what was then an outlying area of Reykjavík. Today it’s Iceland’s domestic airport for links with the rest of the country and a few international flights to Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

The other is at Keflavík, a 40-minute drive from the city, built by the occupying US military who took over from the the British forces. This is where international flights land and take off, ensuring that the first glimpse of Iceland that visitors get is of the drab lava fields between Keflavík and Reykjavík.

The international terminal at Keflavík used to be in a corner of the US base. Years ago was one of the very few places in Iceland where you could legally buy a beer, back when beer was still prohibited. Anyone travelling abroad had to pass through the US military checkpoint to reach the terminal, which could be an unsettling experience. Today there’s a shiny new terminal that was built adjacent to the base that is long gone, right next to the runways that were laid to accommodate the bombers and surveillance aircraft that flew sorties across the North Atlantic through the Cold War.

In contrast, Reykjavík airport is old and tired, and this is where the problems lie. There’s a question of whether or not Iceland needs two airports within a relatively small distance of each other, and the answer is probably not. In theory, it should be possible to route all the traffic through the runways at Keflavík and arrange a rapid transit system of some kind between the airport and the city.

In Norway interminable wrangling over where Oslo’s airport should be was finally brought to an end and it was built 60 kilometres north of the city. Gardermoen, originally a military airstrip with runways built by the occupying German air force (does that sound familiar?) replaced the old Fornebu airport. There’s a train that runs to Oslo as well as a motorway that’ll get you there in half an hour.

It’s more or less what Iceland needs; a railway running between Reykjavík city centre and the airport at Keflavík, with a couple of stops on the city outskirts. It should take about as long it now takes to drive.

Will it happen? Of course not. That would be far too straightforward in the convoluted world of Iceland’s domestic politics.

While there are plenty of people in Reykjavík who would be only to happy to see the city’s little airport disappear, it’s largely the rest of the country that wants to see it stay where it is. It’s seen as the outlying towns’ link to the city, even though there are relatively few flights these days compared to the bad old days when most roads were still gravel and the weather was harsher than it is today. Now there are flights to Akureyri in the north and a few places in the east and the far west. Icelanders generally prefer to drive if they can.

That the city airport lies adjacent to the city hospital means that it is touted as a lifeline, as emergency flights can land with injured people needing immediate treatment who can be shunted across the road to the hospital, not least as healthcare in outlying areas has been steadily cut back over the last few decades. It’s a valid enough argument, although there are arguments that an emergency helicopter service would be a better option, as this could operate right at the scene of an accident and land on a sixpence at the hospital without the need for runways.

In fact, the airport debate has become far more than an argument about transport links. It has instead become one of those peculiar Icelandic issues that become so emotive and so superheated that rational discussion disappears in a puff of overblown rhetoric. It has become an issue that polarises opinion and to be in favour of junking the city airport brands you immediately as being anti-countryside in a country where the urban/rural rift gapes steadily wider, while wanting to keep the flights landing in the city means you’re an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud with no imagination.

Those who want to dispose of Reykjavík’s airport argue that it’s an anachronism that requires much maintenance to bring it up to standard. But the overriding reason is that the Vatnsmýri site of the airport sits on a chunk of land on the city’s southern side that the city and its developers are itching to get their hands on. There’s space there for parks, gardens, houses and apartments (of the luxury variety, of course), office blocks and all the rest of it, all a stone’s throw from the city centre.

You’d have thought that to start with the effort would be going into figuring out how to get people from Keflavík to Reykjavík. The train I mentioned earlier, maybe? But no. The focus is on getting shot of the airport, shunting the flights to Keflavík, which would have to be extended to accept the extra domestic traffic it wasn’t built to take, and getting the bulldozers rolling.

It’s a solid argument for keeping the old city airport where it is; sort out the transport links first, then think about using site for something else. But Iceland doesn’t work like that.

However, the genuinely overriding argument for keeping the city airport in place is the sheer scope that potential development offers for the usual dirty deals, the nods and winks, and the farming out of lucrative contracts to friends and relatives that the whole project offers. But that’s business, Icelandic-style.

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