Growing up Icelandic

I was born in what was then West Germany. My father was an American expat. My mother is a born and raised German citizen. We moved to the States when I was very young. It was to be a temporary move with the plan of moving back to Germany after two years. My father needed to reestablish US residency as he wanted to be a civil servant for the US government back in Germany.

Those plans didn’t pan out and we ended up staying here. I was so young the fact that we stayed didn’t directly affect me. It was a bit harder for my mother and particularly difficult for my sister. She literally was counting the days until we moved back to our beloved Aschbach in the spectacularly beautiful Odenwald. At her age (11) I would have done the same. Here in Chicago I consider myself a German American but when I’m back in Germany I feel more like an American German.

We went back to Germany every summer to stay with my grandmother. At the end of the summer, my grandmother would fly back with us and stay through to the New Year. I’m grateful for the cross-cultural experience that my youth afforded me. In retrospect, I am also particularly grateful to my parents. Back in those days before deregulation, tickets to Europe were particularly expensive. Lufthansa, Pan Am and TWA had a three-way monopoly on flights. My parents with their working class income must have sacrificed a lot to afford the tickets every year.

Hidden among my childhood photo albums I have a receipt from a flight I took to Germany in 1982. It was for $699.00. I have flown on tickets less expensive as an adult even before figuring in 30 years of inflation!

This transatlantic upbringing is probably the biggest factor in my becoming a total aviation geek.

CL-44 Yukon, Rolls Royce Prop Jet

Back then, the cheapest ticket was with Loftleiðir Icelandic, more commonly known around the world as Icelandair. Loftleiðir was often referred to by the somewhat pejorative nicknames “Backpack Air” or “Hippie Air.” If it was good enough for Bill Clinton, it was more than good enough for us! Loftleiðir managed to work around the IATA tariff regulations by selling two tickets. One from the United States to Keflavik and then another on to Luxembourg. Luxembourg was the only European destination, as the country was not part of the IATA tariff regulations. Loftleiðir also threw in a Greyhound style bus connection on to Germany.

The tagline of the airline’s advertising was “We may be slower but our fares are lower!” Icelandair can be thought of as the first Low Cost Carrier (LCC) long before Southwest came onto the scene. To this day, it is the only LCC with scheduled transatlantic flights. Unfortunately, they also followed the LCC trend of having meals only available for purchase.

Loftleiðir also flew the previous generation of aircraft across the North Atlantic. Up until the 70’s, they flew the CL-44 Yukon marketed as the Rolls Royce Prop Jet. The use of previous generation hardware kept the airline under the radar of the much bigger legacy airlines. My earliest memories of flying were of the DC-8-60 Series narrow body jets. For sentimental reasons it is one of my favorite airlines to this day.

Loftleidir – Icelandic Airlines Douglas DC-8-63CF Haafke

As I grew up, so did Icelandair. They bought new state of the art Boeing 757’s. Business Class was introduced. Modern amenities such as seat-back video were eventually added as well. They also dropped the Luxembourg hub and now fly to many destinations in the United States and Europe. The modern Leifur Eiríksson terminal in Keflavik has replaced the original terminal, which was not much more than a shack in the middle of an American NATO base. I’m very sad to have seen that change. The one constant, beyond the rock-bottom fares is the promise of top-notch duty-free shopping and layovers in Iceland. I still own Icelandic woolens and pottery made with Icelandic lava rock.

Icelandair Douglas DC-8 Luxembourg – 7 August 1983

I’ve never flown Icelandair as an adult. They haven’t served Chicago since I was a teenager. The low fares they pioneered before deregulation are now, for the most part, matched by the legacy airlines. Nonstop flights almost always trump connections if the cost is the same. The biggest bargain on Icelandair now is flying business class. The “hard product” isn’t as luxurious as offered by the major airlines but it is also less than half the cost of the nonstop routes.

I have so many wonderful and some less-than-wonderful memories of Icelandair. Maybe I’m a little bit Icelandic as well!

Contemporary 757-200 of Icelandair

Sometime in the 1970s, The Icelandic Tourist Bureau, in conjunction with Loftleiðir and Icelandair Airlines  (Then two separate companies) produced this marvelous film about all things Icelandic.

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