As an experienced pilot who flies Boeing 757s for Icelandair, Commander Sigrun Bjorg Ingvadottir might seem overqualified as a cycling guide.
But these days she’s just as likely to be leading visitors across the wild, windswept ridges of Iceland as she is flying them across the North Atlantic.
Ingvadottir is one Icelandair’s 12 “stopover buddies” – staff volunteers who give their free time to offer passengers a glimpse of Icelandic lifestyle as they pass through the island.
A remote air hub
It’s a cool idea – and one that’s been adapted elsewhere.
But beyond the gimmick is a serious drive to bolster Iceland’s status as a stopover destination in the fiercely competitive transatlantic aviation market.
In the early days of commercial aviation, shorter flying ranges meant Iceland, halfway between Europe and North America, became an unlikely aviation hub.
Aircraft advances have diminished this role, but Icelandair has continued pushing its routes as affordable alternatives to flying directly across the Atlantic.
It’s also been looking for new ways of using Iceland’s stunning natural settings to persuade passengers traveling through Keflavik International Airport to lengthen their stopover.
And so Stopover Buddy was born.
Iceland: Land of contrasts
Anyone flying from Europe to North America with Icelandair who decides to spend some time in Iceland on their way can sign up to the Buddy program on the airline’s website.
Passengers choose from a range of activities – mostly free apart from equipment rental charges – and are then matched to an Icelandair volunteer host.
Outdoor activities and sports feature prominently on the menu.
There’s hiking, horseback riding and fishing in the cold North Atlantic waters, but also cultural and food-related outings.
So far it’s been a hit.
Nearly 700 Stopover Buddy requests were received during the program’s debut February to April 2016 run (it’s returning in the fall), with outdoor sports being the most popular activities.
Air crews and other Icelandair staff have responded enthusiastically, with even the airline’s CEO, Birkir Holm Gudnason, signing up.
Ingvadottir, the mountain biking pilot, says she’ll be volunteering again when the program restarts after several successful buddy excursions.
“As an airline pilot I do my fair share of traveling, and wherever I go, even if it is only for a few hours, I don’t like to do the standard tourist things.
“I would rather experience local lifestyle as closely as possible. So, when I heard about the Stopover Buddy program, I did not need to think about it for long!
“It has been very gratifying so far. We, in Iceland, are very proud of the beauty of our country, so it has been a nice experience to share a bit of it with our guests.”
Layover with a Local
Icelandair isn’t the only airline experimenting with peer-to-peer schemes.
Dutch flag-carrier KLM might not have Iceland’s volcanoes and majestic national parks to capitalize on, but its main hub at Schiphol international airport is barely half an hour away from the center of the buzzing city of Amsterdam.
The airline’s Layover with a Local app aims to offer transit visitors the chance to briefly escape the airport to perhaps join a local for a drink at one of the Dutch capital’s picturesque cafes.
As with Icelandair, transit passengers make up a very significant chunk of KLM’s traffic.
While Schiphol airport has plenty of amenities, the airline’s marketing team was looking for a way to help anyone with a long enough stopover to experience the true Amsterdam.
Layover with a Local allows passengers to connect with local Amsterdam residents who’ve registered with the app and are available when the traveler is in town.
In order to use the app, travelers enter their name and booking code.
KLM then checks if there’s enough time for the layover experience.
If the answer’s yes, and a match for languages and interests can be found, the passenger gets a notification on their phone.
Once they land at Schiphol, the app guides them toward the airport’s train station – the train ticket is included for free, as is the first round of drinks.
From there it’s just a short hop to Amsterdam’s Central Station, where they should encounter “their local,” holding up a phone with the traveler’s name displayed on it.
The free app ensures they make it back in time for their flight by sending an alert.
It’s still in pilot phase until the end of June, being made available for iTunes download in the U.S., Canada and Italy, but has attracted interest from more than 3,000 people.
Amsterdam by bicycle
Peer-to-peer is having a moment
With the “collaborative economy” being one of today’s hottest concepts, businesses around the world are keen to sprinkle themselves with some of that Airbnb or Uber-style peer-to-peer tech magic.
Icelandair and KLM are leading the way in Europe with new experimental travel experiences tied into their offering, but no doubt more and more airlines will be following suit.
With stopover sweeteners like this, a mid-flight break no longer has to be spent at the airport.
Miquel Ros is an aviation blogger and consultant with a passion for all things travel. An economist by background, he’s worked for for the likes of Bloomberg and Flightglobal and currently covers the airline industry through Allplane.tv. As an independent consultant he advises companies in the travel and technology space.