Thursday April 27, 2017

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Final approach

Proposed airport construction will make getting to Greenland faster and cheaper
Faster, cheaper, longer (Photo: Boegh)

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For years, everyone has talked about Greenland’s airport infrastructure. Little has been done about it. In six years, much may be different, after Inatsisartut, the national assembly, last week voted to continue a process that would redirect much of the current air-traffic pattern.

Currently, the vast majority of flights to Greenland land in Kangerlussuaq. While the site has the benefit of a long runway and relatively good weather year round, it is the final destination for few passengers. Most fly onward to Nuuk (pictured above), the capital, or to Ilulissat, a major tourism destination. The process is both time-consuming and expensive.

Under the 2 billion kroner ($290 million) proposal, put forward on Thursday by Knud Kristiansen, the infrastructure minister, both airports would see their runways extended to a length that would allow them to receive intercontinental flights on par with Kangerlussauq.

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The plan calls for a 2,200m runway in Ilulissat, to be completed by 2018, and an 1,800m runway in Nuuk, which would be taken into service by 2019.

The longer runway, according to a study released last week by Rambøll, a consultancy, would be sufficient for all types of aircraft flying to Greenland, including those originating in Asia. Nuuk’s extension, which would add about 1,000m to the existing runway, would allow the airport there to receive medium-sized jets from most of Europe or eastern North America.

In addition to making it more convenient to travel to the country’s two primary destinations, the direct flights, according Rambøll’s calculations, could also reduce airfares by as much as 30%.

Other destinations would also benefit. In addition to the two extensions, Mr Kristiansen’s proposal calls for the establishment of three airports capable of landing regional aircraft from Icleand or Nunavut. The first, in Qaqortoq, in the extreme south, would be ready by 2018. The other in Tasiilaq, on the eastern coast, 2018, would open to traffic in 2022.

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A fifth airport would be built in Ittoqqortoormiit. With a 650m runway, it would mostly handle domestic flights carrying up to 12 passengers.

The construction would see existing airports downgraded, or possibly shuttered. Of greatest interest is Kangerlussuaq. Supporters, particularly in the local council there, hope to keep it open. Cost, though, is likely to prevent that. Kangerlussuaq was established in the 1940s by American forces. Keeping it running will cost 1.9 billion kroner over the next 10 years, partly due to age, partly due to thawing permafrost.

Whether the improvements are made or the airport is downgraded to a destination airport that would serve a cruise-ship terminal, cold-weather test facilities and other scientific facilities located there, a decision needs to be made soon. A government-ordered report, issued last week, concluded that some 250m of the 2,800m runway is unusable, and that during the summer airliners can only land and take off in one direction. Conditions are expected to deteriorate further in the years to come.

Mr Knudsen, discussing the proposal, suggested that refurbishment was not on the cards.

“At some point, it may be necessary for us to begin discussing (Kangerlussuaq’s) function. We know that when we build in Ilulissat and Nuuk, our traffic patterns are going to be entirely different than they are today,” he told KNR, a broadcaster.