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The Icelandic Loftleiðir was the 1st airline to offer cheaper transatlantic fares in the 1960’s; it was also called “the Hippie Airline”

Stefan Andrews

Founded in 1944, the airline company Loftleiðir was an effort of Alfred Eliasson and two other young Icelandic pilots. The first commercial flight was local: from Reykjavik to Ísafjörður, on 6th of April, 1944.

Then on Icelandic National Day on 17 June, 1947, the first international flight was launched to Copenhagen, Denmark, using a Douglas DC-4, and in 1948, the company flew its first DC-4 to New York as well.

Photo of Douglas DC-4, this one belonging to Pacific Western Airlines in 1959, photo credit.

Loftleiðir was notable for several things in the past. During one period, this was the airline that operated the largest passenger aircraft flying over the Atlantic Ocean, with a capacity of up to 189 passengers. The good geographical position of Iceland in the Atlantic, between America and Europe, allowed the airline to accommodate flights via its home airport in the capital of Reykjavik.

That was possible with lower expenses on crew logistics, which was an advantage compared to other European or American air companies.

Cabin of a Scandinavian Airlines System DC-4 during a domestic evening service in Norway in 1953, photo credit.

Subsequently, the Loftleiðir grew in popularity among many young Americans who became frequent users of the flights. During those years, it was also the company’s own staff that referred to the airlines as “the Hippie Express” or “the Hippie Airline”. Young Americans used their routes to reach Europe after graduation and experience life and culture on the Old Continent. Although the Icelandic airline was infamous for its slow speed and lack of promptness, the youths preferred it as it was a cheap means of travel. The New York Times called the Loftleiðir a “low-cost travel pioneer”.

The cheap travel option was made possible as the company was not part of the International Air Transport Association, which back then defined the fares for its member airlines on transatlantic routes. Moreover, the company was only allowed to transport passengers to and from its country of registration, but it used stopovers around one hour long, without changing the aircraft. The mastermind behind this strategy that allowed the Loftleiðir to offer these inexpensive flights was Sigurdur Helgason, who managed the American operations of the company from 1961 to 1973.

An advertisement of the Icelandic Airlines from May 1973,  in New York’s historic Fifth Avenue.

Flying with this small company sort of became a rite of passage by the late 1960’s for many young “hippies”. The most famous users turned out to be the Clintons.

Here is another story from us: The Icelandic Theory: Problems with the history of the Ivory Vikings

In a 2011 state visit, the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton even recalled the airline slogan from these years, “We are the slowest but the lowest”.

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