Finnair grounded: Norway refuses to allow direct flights between Helsinki and Svalbard, citing 1978 agreement

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Finnair has cancelled plans to offer direct flights between Helsinki and Longyearbyen this summer after Norway’s government refused to authorize the route, citing a 1978 agreement between Norway and Finland that prohibits the latter country from offering flights to the archipelago.

The airline has three weeks to appeal the decision by Norway’s Civil Aviation Authority. But  Päivyt Tallquist, the airline’s communications director, said the decision has already been made to cancel this summer’s flights even if a decision is made to appeal the decision or amend the agreement.

“We can not let our customers live in uncertainty,” she told High North News. “They need predictability and therefore we are giving them a refund for already purchased tickets now. This is very unfortunate.”

The first-ever flights to Svalbard by Finnair were scheduled between June 1 and Aug. 27. The airline was also promoting the flights to travelers coming to and from Asia on newly established routes, at least of which may now be put on hold.

Both the Norwegian government’s rejection and the airline’s cancellation were quickly and harshly criticized by local and regional tourism officials, as well as would-be travelers.

“Just for this flight there was talk of 3,000 passengers in a three-month period,” Christian Chramer director of the Troms and Svalbard regions for the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, told NRK. “It is basically a quiet period for tourism in Svalbard. It would have meant so much to bring in 3,000 more, both for increased capacity utilization, sales throughout the business community and it would have opened a larger share of the world market for Svalbard tourism.”

Tourism is seen as a critical industry for Longyearbyen’s economic future with nearly all local coal mining being shut down this year. Politicians and industry officials have stated they hope to double current visitor numbers, but Visit Svalbard Director Ronny Brunvoll stated the rejection of Finnair is a setback in efforts to lure new markets.

“It is not logical and this naive young man is actually shocked,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Are we going to be able to develop tourism in Svalbard if we have these type (conscious or unconscious) of opposing forces identifying and eliminating it?”

Officials at the Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Communications, which would handle an appeal of the ruling, declined to comment about the situation, noting no appeal exists.

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