Like many long-running political disputes in Iceland, it’s the fault of the British. During World War II, the UK occupied Iceland and built an airport on the then-outskirts of Reykjavík. When Keflavík Airport became the main international airport of Iceland, the one in Reykjavík lived on as the hub for domestic flights. But for almost two decades now, the City of Reykjavík has been working to relocate it, as it is no longer on the outskirts of town. In fact, it is now abutting downtown.
HUR HUR HUR, YOU SAID ABUTTING.
And a fine word it is. For a long time the city government has been working to increase the population density of Reykjavík. The old policy of building new neighbourhoods whenever housing was needed has meant that the city is more sprawled than a ski jumper who did not fasten his boots properly.
AND HOW DOES REMOVING THE AIRPORT SOLVE THE POPULATION DENSITY PROBLEM?
It does not solve it, but it helps quite a bit. The city reckons that around 7,000 apartments could be built on the land now occupied by the airport. As it is centrally located, a lot of already available service centres will be in reach of the new neighbourhood, and as it would be quite densely populated, transit would be cheaper than in the sprawling outer boroughs.
WELL THEN, THAT ALL SOUNDS FAIRLY REASONABLE, SO I GUESS THE AIRPORT’S LEAVING.
According to the City of Reykjavík, yes, but a lot of people are against it, especially those who live in the countryside of Iceland. As Reykjavík is the capital, out-of-towners find it necessary to visit from time to time. For them it is quite handy to have a downtown airport to fly into because most government offices are a stone’s throw away from the airport.
SPEAKING OF STONES, IT BRINGS TO MIND, WELL, THINGS THAT FALL DOWN ON THE GROUND.
One of the mostly unspoken subtexts of the debate is the pants-wetting fear that grips people who are walking around in downtown Reykjavík, and glance up to find themselves staring a Fokker 50 in the nose, which is a passenger plane and not the latest mixtape in the rap feud between The Game and 50 Cent. The planes fly overhead of course, but the illusion of being about to be squished by 41,000 pounds of metal is persistent on whichever part of your lizard brain that thinks it is a good idea to discharge all excess pee when very frightened.
PRESUMABLY IT’S TO MAKE YOU LIGHTER ON YOUR FEET AND LEAVE A SLIPPERY PATCH FOR YOUR PURSUER TO SLIP ON.
It is clear you have given this a lot of thought. I said this subtext was mostly unspoken of because the political discussion show Silfur Egils used to preface any segments about the airport relocation by showing an animation of a Fokker plane crashing into the Icelandic parliament building. Thankfully no planes have crashed in inhabited areas, though in 1988 a medium sized transport plane crashed fifty metres south of Reykjavík’s most traffic-heavy road, killing the three people on the plane.
YIKES! HOW DID THEY REACT TO THAT? MOVE THE ROAD SOMEWHERE ELSE?
Yes, eventually they moved the road about fifty metres southward. If that seems a bit crazy, the reason they did it was largely to give the National Hospital more space as said high-traffic road went straight through its grounds. As you may gather, city planning as a concept was a late arrival on these shores. The closeness of the hospital to the airport is, however, part of what makes any schemes to relocate it especially touchy for out-of-towners, as it is the only facility in Iceland capable of performing many of the more complicated medical procedures.
SO WHERE IS THE CITY THINKING OF MOVING THE AIRPORT?
The main candidate is a place on the eastern edge of the city called Hólmsheiði, the sort of lovely, evocative place that makes one want to build a prison, as the Icelandic state has just started doing. Since this development might require the municipal authorities to change its plans, other airport location ideas are being discussed. Of those ideas, the most popular is to use Keflavík Airport as the municipal airport for Reykjavík.
THAT WOULD NOT MAKE THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE ABLE TO MAKE A QUICK TRIP TO REYKJAVÍK HAPPY.
There have been suggestions to accommodate them, most excitingly a 2007 proposal to build a mag-lev train that goes from Keflavík to where the municipal airport is now, though sadly that option has not been discussed much lately. That is a shame because whooshing around on a mag-lev train is the second coolest transport option, after the jetpack. For now though it seems more likely the airport stays where it is, until a plane crashes into the parliament building.