By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
Back in May 1972, I took my first trip to Europe, flying from New York JFK on Icelandic Airlines. I was bound for Luxembourg’s Findel International Airport (IATA code LUX), where all of Icelandic’s Europe-bound fights landed. Most of the passengers were, like me, budget-minded young backpackers.
Well before reaching Luxembourg, my flight refueled at Keflavik International Airport (KEF), 31 miles outside Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. The chilly Icelandic rain, whipped by wind, came in horizontally, lashing the runway. I browsed in the airport duty-free shop, then clambered back on-board and squeezed into a middle seat in economy class for the rest of the journey.
Fast-forward 41 years: I am no longer a backpacker, no longer young and no longer single. My wife Georgina and I occupy seats in Saga Class, as business class is called on what is now Icelandair. She is by the window; I am on the aisle.
The airline doesn’t have a hub in Luxembourg anymore; it flies to two dozen European cities and now serves 11 cities in the United States and Canada.
Before boarding, Georgina and I relaxed in the smallish but attractive business-class lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) that Icelandair shares with the lounge’s main tenant, British Airways.
When we left the lounge for Icelandair flight FI680, oddities began occurring.
Just as I stepped into the aircraft, a small plastic ‘Welcome’ sign over the aircraft’s door fell off, bonking me in the head. The nearest Icelandair flight attendant glared at another airline worker, saying “Are you responsible for (fixing) this?” but made no apology to me, her startled passenger.
There was no bump, bruise or blood, and no harm done, but it was a novel beginning to a flight.
I relaxed with a complimentary glass of sparkling wine and we departed Seattle on-time at 4:30 p.m. on a single-aisle Boeing 757-200. The 7.5-hour, 3,148-mile flight from Seattle to Keflavik is the longest long-haul flight operated by Icelandair – an unusual airline by several measures.
The prime unit of Icelandair Group, Icelandair is a small airline, operating a fleet of 24 aircraft. All of them are Boeing 757s; four are freighters. All of Icelandair’s passenger 757s will eventually be replaced by new Boeing 737 MAX jets, which the carrier has already ordered but which won’t be delivered until much nearer the end of the decade.
Icelandair is based in an island nation of 300,000 people, two-thirds of whom cluster in Reykjavik. Several years ago, in the white-heat of the international banking crisis, Iceland’s economy melted down. The country, and Icelandair, the flag carrier, haven’t got the wealth or scale of major global competitors.
Also over the past several years, erupting Icelandic volcanoes have at times disrupted air travel over the North Atlantic. Simply put, this island – volatile in more ways than one – is a challenging place to operate.
I bore all this in mind as Georgina and I settled into the Saga Class cabin, which has 22 seats, two abreast in rows flanking both sides of the aisle at the front of the plane. There is a universal electrical outlet at every Saga seat, but no Wi-Fi.
In Icelandair’s 757-200s, a 41-seat Economy Comfort (premium economy) cabin is located behind Saga, mostly configured in a row of three seats abreast each side of the aisle, with the middle seats held open. The 120-seat, three-abreast Economy class is behind that.
The seat pitch in Saga is cramped by long-haul international standards, at 40 inches. Pitch is 33 inches in Economy Comfort and 32 inches in Economy. Saga seats are 20.5 inches wide, compared to 19 inches in Economy Comfort and 16.9 inches in Economy.
Saga Class leather seats do not convert into flat beds but rather resemble the easy chair-like recliners that characterized business class on major global carriers in the 1990s. I usually find flat-beds too narrow, with too many palpable component parts, to be comfortable anyway, so that didn’t bother me.
As we soared above the Canadian Rockies, I twisted open a bottle of Icelandic glacial water, available at every Saga seat, and took a swig. I zipped opened the Saga amenity kit: eyeshade, socks, ear-plugs, L’Occitane lotions and creams. I contemplated a meal.
Alas, the carrier ran out of our first choice of dinner entrees. We had another go at ordering. No, we were told matter-of-factly, this item had not been loaded onto the plane. We settled for our third choice. (Economy class passengers pay extra for meals and alcoholic beverages.)
Candidly, I don’t recall the cuisine other than an indifferent green salad I didn’t finish. I found the view of the mountainous, fractured icecap of Greenland from Georgina’s window seat more captivating.
The in-flight entertainment system, while not extensive, was fairly diverse, with pop, classical, jazz and more, plus a sprinkling of TV shows and movies, some of them Icelandic. You navigate the system with a not-always-sensitive touch-screen on the back of the seat in front of you. I listened to Bjork, Iceland’s most famous pop star, and her not-of-this-Earth wail.
We touched down at Keflavik, on time, at 6:45 a.m. I glanced outside. Once again, chilly Icelandic rain was coming in horizontally, whipped by wind, lashing the runway. Some things don’t change.
Thankfully, another, more enjoyable thing hasn’t changed, either: As in 1972, passengers can disembark at Keflavik airport and reboard their Icelandair flights up to seven days later, allowing for a layover in Iceland, at no extra charge.
I wanted to show my wife a bit of Reykjavik, so we threaded through the airport to a waiting bus that would take us into town. It was my first time back in Iceland since ’72, when Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Melanie topped the pop charts and chess masters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky held a fiercely contested Cold War showdown in Reykjavik.
After our short visit to Iceland, we took an ocean cruise to Southampton, then flew home from London on another carrier, as planned months earlier. Thus, we didn’t visit Icelandair’s kitted-out Saga Class lounge at Keflavik International Airport, which is popular with travelers.
All told, I found Icelandair’s Saga Class on-board product roughly equivalent to U.S. domestic first-class or premium economy on leading global carriers. Nothing special, but it gets the job done.
Most importantly, the airline got us safely and usually smoothly to Reykjavik, where Bjork has supplanted Boris and Bobby and the clubs are packed with 24-hour party people under the midnight sun.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others.