Skift Take

It's been said that airports are the doorways to a destination and that's nowhere more true than in Iceland where the number of first-time visitors and transfer passengers are skyrocketing, giving the airport the opportunity to welcome and woo tourists.

Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport is undergoing a transformation from a once underused transfer hub to a global stopover that shares local culture even with passengers just changing flights.

Keflavik made headlines in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted causing major disruptions to air travel across Europe for one week. The airport, surprisingly, ran with little trouble during the eruption and traffic has been on the rise ever since.

In fact, air traffic is on pace to double over the past decade. Passenger departures increased from 600,369 flyers in 2004 to 1,005,122, flyers in 2012, according to Statistics Iceland.

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“We used to want the airport to have a global feel. Now we want to change the theme of the airport so it reminds people of downtown Reykjavik,” explains Gudmundur Dadi Runarsson, the Keflavik’s deputy terminal director who along with his media team led Skift on a tour of the hub last month.

On an average day at the airport, 33 percent of flyers are arriving, 33 percent are departing, and 33 percent are on transfer. The passengers are currently 60 percent foreigners and 40 percent locals, but Runarsson expects that to change.

In five years, the airport expects 80 percent of flyers will be foreigners and 50 percent of traffic will be transfers. The high volume of transfer traffic is one of the primary reasons for reworking the airport.

Highlighting Iceland’s activities, cuisine, and landscape might inspire transfer passengers to consider a longer stopover or vacation in the future.

In addition to more local touches, the airport is also changing the primary language from Icelandic to English to ease passengers’ wayfinding.

“We’re changing how we do way finding to make English the number one language. The goal is to provide the relevant information to the right passenger at the right time,” explains Runarsson.

“If wayfinding has an Icelandic feel, that’s a bonus. This is probably the only time we’d say that.”


Although the airport was ranked 73 out of 100 in Skytrax’s global airport ranking, Keflavik executives aim to place among the top 5 airports in the future.

One of the airport’s biggest obstacles today is increasing capacity while remaining a reasonably priced airport. Their current strategy involves making money more from passenger retail than high fares and fees.

The airport has created its own duty free store to maximize revenues. It also has a handful of stores dedicated to selling local goods from sweaters and puffin dolls to products form tourist hotspot the Blue Lagoon.

Another area executives are looking to improve is security.

Flyers can sometimes wait in lines for up to 20 minutes, but the executives’ goal is to streamline security so that all passengers are processed in under 15 minutes. Elements that help keep passengers moving are automatic tray belts and doors that alert the passenger to step outside of the scanner rather than wait to be waived forward.

“We want to make the security more like an Icelandic home,” says Runarsson.


During renovations, executives decided to take the worse feature, improve it, and move on from there. That first feature to be improved was Wi-Fi speed.

“Seventy-five percent of people from U.S. flights have smartphones and almost all of them try to connect to Wi-Fi after landing,” says Runarsson.

Another under appreciated improvement is a tenfold increase in bathrooms. The number of bathrooms went from 8 to 83 to accommodate passenger growth.

It’s this attention to detail, which helps Keflavik already stand out among the larger, more complicated airports of Europe.


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Tags: iceland, icelandair

Photo credit: The Icelandair tail seen outside the Keflavik International Airport. Keflavik International Airport / Flickr

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