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Business & Economy

Transatlantic travel — including flights to Iceland — is back at RDU after a pandemic pause

 Icelandair flight 821 taxis to the gate at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on May 12, 2022.
Bradley George
/
WUNC
Icelandair flight 821 taxis to the gate at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on May 12, 2022.

The pandemic put a stop to most international air travel from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. But international flights are slowly returning.

Routes to Canada and Mexico returned first, and now RDU is welcoming back transatlantic service with a new airline — one that flies direct to Iceland.

On a cloudy Thursday evening in May, about two dozen journalists, aviation geeks and airport officials gathered on the tarmac, as Icelandair Flight 821 touched down. Water cannons from the airport fire department showered the Boeing 737 as it made its way to the gate.

Bogi Nils Bogason, Icelandair’s CEO, was the first passenger to clear customs.

“We can say, pre-COVID, we had been looking at this destination as an opportunity, as an addition to our network,” he said.

Icelandair CEO Bogi Nils Bogason speaks to the media
Bradley George`
/
WUNC
Icelandair CEO Bogi Nils Bogason speaks to the media after arriving on flight 821 on May 12, 2022. The seasonal service between RDU and Iceland's Keflavik airport will run through October.

Icelandair has built its reputation as a discount airline that offers a free stopover in Iceland, along with a network of European destinations that extends from Helsinki to the Canary Islands.

“And we also believe that this will be an interesting market for Icelanders and Europeans to travel to here,” Bogason added.

RDU spent about five years negotiating with Icelandair and gathering research that showed the route would turn a profit. The airport also offered up cold-hard cash, by waiving up to $250,000 in fees for the first two years. The airport is using those same incentives in hopes of luring other carriers.

“It's not an emotional decision at all, to bring an airplane into a market,” Kenneth Strickland, RDU’s Director of Air Service Development, said on an episode of the airport’s official podcast. It’s his job to sell RDU to prospective airlines. He came to the Triangle from Tampa, where he helped the city’s airport rapidly expand its international flight offerings.

“I can sit there all day and point to our breweries and how great the weather is here," Strickland said. “And we've got the mountains and the beaches, but at the end of the day, it’s how many passengers can we get on this plane and how much are they going to spend to fly there? And that requires a level of data that the airlines may not have access to.”

For now, Icelandair’s RDU service is seasonal. The inaugural run ends in October, but year-round European flights on other airlines are returning. American resumed direct service to London in early June. Delta flights to Paris are scheduled to re-start in August.

While airlines are struggling with staffing shortages and cancellations, people are eager to fly overseas.

“There's been a surge in, people call it revenge travel,” said Dave Slotnick, who covers the aviation industry for The Points Guy. “Flights are filling up; flights are being booked. It's a pretty definitive attestation to this demand coming back."

And that demand isn’t slowing, even as airfares are soaring faster than inflation. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, they’re up 40% in the past year.

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