Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Wings Over Greece
Greece is a nation defined by its relationship with the sky. As an archipelago surrounded by azure seas, aviation has long played an integral role in connecting its many islands and linking this historic crossroads to the wider world. The story of Olympic Airways is deeply intertwined with the growth of Greek aviation.
In the early decades of flight, seaplanes gracefully skimmed over cerulean waters, providing new mobility to islanders and visitors alike. By the late 1920s, landplanes began to supplement maritime routes, ushering in a new era of air travel in Greece. After World War II, the nation looked to rebuild and modernize its fragmented air network. The newly-formed Greek National Airline took wing in 1947 on domestic routes before adopting the Olympic name and livery in 1957.
Olympic Airways came to embody the glamour and pride of a young nation finding its wings. For those growing up in Greece during the airline's heyday in the 1970s, Olympic was more than a way to get around - it was a symbol of a confident, cosmopolitan country open to the world. Back then, a ticket on Olympic meant far more than a flight from A to B. It represented Greece's arrival on the global stage.
Over its six-decade history, Olympic passengers didn't just board planes - they boarded Greek culture. The airline promoted local wines, feta cheese, music, art, and hospitality as part of a flying embassy connecting Hellas with the planet. For generations of travelers, encountering the airline's blue-and-gold livery meant you had arrived somewhere authentically Greek.
Of course, no flight is entirely smooth. Olympic encountered financial headwinds and operational turbulence over the years, resulting in a rocky ride both for its employees and passengers. But throughout its ups and downs, the airline remained an indelible part of the Greek identity during the 20th century.
While Olympic Airways may have disappeared from flight boards, its spirit lives on in today's Greek aviation landscape. When you board an Aegean or Sky Express flight, you are stepping into a story that began decades ago, when Olympic first took wing. The pride, hospitality, and connection to the world beyond Greece's shores remain every bit as strong with the current generation of airlines.
What else is in this post?
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Wings Over Greece
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - From Humble Beginnings to National Carrier
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Glory Days of the 1970s
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - An Airline Too Greek to Fail?
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Financial Tailspins and Government Bailouts
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Scandals, Strikes and Services Disruptions
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Final Flight for the Flying Olive Tree
- Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - What's Next for Greek Aviation?
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - From Humble Beginnings to National Carrier
The origins of Olympic Airways reach back to the earliest days of Greek aviation. In the 1920s and 1930s, fledgling airlines like Icarus and Hellenic Airlines operated sporadic service between Athens, Thessaloniki, and a handful of islands. These small pioneer airlines laid the groundwork for a more connected Greece, but could not fully unite the nation's hundreds of far-flung islands.
After World War II, the Greek government aimed to knit together its air network and modernize the country's infrastructure. Aviation would play a pivotal role in this national renewal. Out of the ashes of war emerged three new state-run airlines to serve domestic routes: TAE in the north, PAE in the center, and EAE in the south.
In 1947, these regional carriers were merged into a single flag carrier originally called TAE Greek National Airlines. Personnel from the predecessor airlines came together under one banner on the tarmac of Ellinikon Airport in Athens, forming a truly national airline. Domestic operations quickly expanded to cities like Heraklion, Rhodes, Corfu, Chania, and Alexandroupoli.
By the mid-1950s, the airline (renamed Greek National Airlines) was flying abroad to major European capitals on Convair Metropolitans. The public associated its blue-windowed planes with national pride and progress. Aviation allowed ordinary Greeks to connect with each other and the world beyond in ways unimaginable just a generation prior.
This aviation renaissance reached new heights when Greek National Airlines officially took the name Olympic Airways in 1957 after approval by the International Olympic Committee. The iconic six rings logo and corporate identity gave the airline global name recognition. Its livery evoked Greek history and sporting excellence.
Over the following decades, Olympic Airways acquired larger aircraft to serve long haul routes to Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. It promoted Greece abroad through its world-famous in-flight service. By flying the flag to all corners of the globe, it became one of the most visible symbols of modern Greece.
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Glory Days of the 1970s
The 1970s were the glory days for Olympic Airways. As Greece emerged from a military dictatorship and transitioned to democracy, the national airline embodied the country’s newfound confidence and global aspirations. Olympic expanded rapidly during the decade, acquiring wide-body jets and extending its network to all six inhabited continents. By the mid-70s, Olympic served Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America.
For most Greeks, flying abroad on Olympic was a novelty and status symbol. Olympic’s growth paralleled Greece’s economic boom and emergence as a modern European nation. Taking an Olympic flight meant you had arrived. The airline exuded glamour and sophistication with top-notch in-flight service. Olympic proudly showcased Greek wines, olive oil, music and hospitality.
Olympic’s 747s whisked cosmopolitan Greeks and foreign tourists to exotic destinations like Johannesburg, New York, Tokyo and Sydney. Flying nonstop from Athens to New York in just 10 hours epitomized the new jet age. Olympic’s long haul expansion brought faraway places within easy reach for Greeks.
Domestically, Olympic connected the islands like never before. Islanders who once relied on slow ferries could now hop on a plane and be home in time for dinner. Olympic’s domestic network gave Greeks wings, revolutionizing business and tourism.
By 1974, Olympic served 80 destinations on four continents with a modern fleet of 747s and DC-8s. Olympic helped put Greece on the map as a global destination. For Olympic’s young flight attendants, pilots and staff, it was the most exciting time to take to the skies. The airline exuded youthful energy and optimism during the 70s.
Of course, Olympic experienced some turbulence amidst its rapid ascent. With expansion came organizational and financial strain. The airline struggled to integrate new aircraft and staff. Sudden fuel price shocks in the 70s hit Olympic hard.
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - An Airline Too Greek to Fail?
Olympic Airways wasn’t just an airline – it was the aviation embodiment of modern Greece itself. The fates of airline and country were tightly intertwined. As Greece’s global ambassador, Olympic’s success represented national success.
Successive Greek governments took extraordinary measures to ensure Olympic’s survival during periodic financial tailspins. Seeing the airline falter was tantamount to an affront on national pride. Olympic received repeated government bailouts and injections of public funds to stay aloft.
Critics claimed Olympic was mismanaged as a bloated public sector entity prioritizing politics over economics. But supporters saw Olympic as the lifeblood of Greek tourism and global engagement. Letting it fail was unthinkable.
The airline’s workforce also benefited from its privileged status. Olympic’s employees enjoyed favorable contracts, high salaries, generous benefits and strong union protections compared to private sector norms. With the government as a benefactor, labor unrest rarely resulted in serious consequences.
This cycle of state support shielded Olympic from market forces facing private airlines. Its symbiotic relationship with the Greek government imbued it with a resilience surpassing most flag carriers. While airlines across Europe consolidated and failed, Olympic persisted as an extension of the public sector.
But the airline’s string of government lifelines fostered complacency. With limited accountability and guaranteed state aid, Olympic had little incentive to reform. Its privileged position was a blessing and a curse.
The arrival of European liberalization in the 1990s profoundly challenged Olympic’s insulated existence. Continued state support ran afoul of EU competition policy. But the Greek political establishment remained reluctant to expose Olympic to the free market.
The airline’s collapse in 2009 was a shock to the system. Olympic didn’t seem capable of failure. But the financial reckoning ultimately came. Its demise was a painful symbol of Greece’s economic crisis.
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Financial Tailspins and Government Bailouts
Olympic Airways faced perpetual financial turbulence throughout its history, resulting in repeated government bailouts to keep the airline aloft. While most flag carriers enjoyed a golden age of expansion in the 1960s and 70s, Olympic struggled to stay out of the red even during prosperous times.
A variety of factors continually strained Olympic's balance sheet. As a state-run airline without hard budget constraints, Olympic indulged in spectacular inefficiencies. Its ever-expanding payroll became bloated with political patronage appointments. By the 1980s, Olympic had a stunning employee to aircraft ratio exceeding 100:1. Compare that to efficent low-cost carriers operating with lean ratios of 30-40:1.
Olympic's operating costs spiraled out of control. Salaries and benefits outstripped European norms, while productivity languished. The airline lacked modern cost control and optimization systems common at global carriers. Successive governments treated Olympic as an employment vehicle first, enterprise second.
While Olympic generously served tiny islands year-round despite losses, its long haul network underperformed. Olympic struggled to fill its widebodies to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Poor marketing and distribution placed Olympic at a competitive disadvantage in faraway markets.
Then there were external shocks no airline could fully control. The 1979 oil crisis hit Olympic hard, quadrupling its fuel expenditure. Price shocks recurred in the 2000s as Olympic relied exclusively on imported jet fuel.
Currency fluctuations also hammered Olympic's balance sheet. With most expenses in USD and revenues in volatile Greek Drachma, periodic devaluations caused major financial hits. After Greece joined the Eurozone in 2001, Olympic struggled with the high Euro.
Facing recurring losses, Olympic relied on a lifeline most airlines could only dream of - unlimited state support. Greek governments viewed Olympic as an extension of the public sector, not an independent business. Bailouts came in many forms - direct cash injections, taking over debts, subsidized loans, guaranteed lines of credit, and relief from taxes and fees.
Between 1975 and 2009, Olympic received at least $2 billion in state subsidies. This allowed subpar performance to continue unchecked for decades. Management knew taxpayer money would always materialize when coffers ran dry.
While state support kept Olympic aloft, it distorted business decisions. With less pressure to become sustainably profitable, restructuring took a backseat to political considerations. Loss-making routes and money draining practices continued unchanged.
European Union regulators took an increasingly dim view of Olympic's open-ended state support. After Greece joined the EU, rules prohibited market distorting airline subsidies and required transparency. Olympic's finances came under belated scrutiny.
One final financial blow Olympic could not withstand was the 29 billion euro contract for Airbus A340s in 1998. This politically motivated purchase of long haul quad jets made little business sense as Olympic struggled to profitably utilize its existing fleet. It saddled Olympic with unsustainable debt that permanently crippled its finances.
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Scandals, Strikes and Services Disruptions
Olympic's high-profile status ensured its scandals and missteps captivated Greek media. The state-run airline seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next during the 1980s and 90s, though services rarely halted altogether. Being flag carrier granted Olympic a resilience normal market forces would not have tolerated.
As a government entity, Olympic became embroiled in political controversies of the day. Its management structure changed frequently as opposing parties cycled through power. Speculation about cronyism, corruption and mismanagement was rampant. Few Greeks believed Olympic was run transparently as an independent business - political interests always intervened.
Labor relations were particularly fraught at the overstaffed airline. With jobs viewed as political compensation, deadwood accumulated and performance suffered. Olympic's powerful unions knew work stoppages could paralyze tourism, so strikes provided leverage. Management gave in to avoid disruptions, though eventually, even flight operations halted occasionally during the worst unrest.
During a 1993 strike, Olympic suspended service completely for over 3 weeks at the peak of summer. Islands normally packed with tourists were left bereft of visitors. Both the tourist industry and nation suffered greatly. The walk-out was symptomatic of Olympic's dysfunction - only an airline shielded from market forces could cease operations entirely for weeks and survive.
Olympic made global headlines for a 1993 hijacking en route New York. Flight attendants claimed lax security enabled the takeover, alleging they had forewarned management about the perpetrator, a former employee. Eventually, the plane was stormed by Greek commandos in a botched rescue that resulted in passenger deaths. Recriminations over Olympic's negligence persisted for years.
By the early 2000s, Olympic's reputation had hit bottom. Tales of atrocious customer service did little for Greece's image abroad. Delays, mishandled baggage and surly staff became routine. Critics joked even Olympic's name had come to represent failure and incompetence. Belgians coined the term "to olympic" meaning to utterly destroy something.
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - Final Flight for the Flying Olive Tree
After six turbulent decades, Olympic Airways' final flight took to the skies in 2009, marking the end of an era for Greek aviation. Though Olympic had survived many close calls before, this time, the writing was on the wall. Beset by insurmountable debts and unable to reform, Europe’s most subsidized airline was grounded for good.
Olympic’s demise had been long foretold, yet its passing still stunned Greeks. Though the airline’s best days were far behind it, Olympic remained woven into the national psyche. For generations, Olympic’s planes were a fixture of island life, connecting the scattered nation. Islanders fondly recalled when Olympic first arrived, modernizing their remote communities. The airline’s collapse severed an umbilical cord to the world beyond home shores.
The airline’s workforce mourned Olympic like a fallen family member. Many employees had devoted their entire careers to the company. Long serving staff bitterly lamented that lifetimes of service hadn’t saved their airline. They blamed politicians, not Olympic’s inefficiencies for its fate. To them, mismanagement was never the airline’s fault but the government’s - Olympic was only as sound as the state that set its course.
Passengers too grieved Olympic’s disappearance, notwithstanding its diminished state at the end. For generations of global travelers, Olympic remained synonymous with Greece itself. Though newer airlines had eclipsed Olympic, it remained the national emblem of aviation. Flying Olympic, Athenians insisted, just felt more authentically Greek.
At its peak, traveling Olympic was a memorable experience. Passengers fondly recounted Olympic’s gracious onboard hospitality - the flowing ouzo, regional wines and olives. Veteran flight attendants charmed travelers with their knowledge of all things Greek. Pilots detoured planes for glimpses of island beauty. Olympic’s service elevated air travel from mundane to meaningful.
The airline that introduced millions to Greece’s beauty deserved a dignified sendoff. But Olympic’s final weeks proved as turbulent as the decades prior. With massive layoffs looming, operations deteriorated. Flights flew increasingly empty in Olympic’s twilight. On its final day, only 200 passengers flew the airline’s last routes.
On the ground, chaos ensued as shellshocked staff absorbed their futures vanishing. Airline personnel scuffled over soon-to-be-unemployed planes. Final paychecks never materialized. Gates stood deserted at once bustling Olympic terminals. Just as quickly as Olympic rose, it disappeared - too Greek to live, and too Greek to die easily.
Highs and Lows of the Flying Olive Tree: The Turbulent History of Olympic Airways - What's Next for Greek Aviation?
While Olympic Airways may be gone, the future remains bright for aviation in Greece. From the ashes of the fallen national carrier arise new contenders aiming to redefine flying in the Aegean.
For Greek travelers, Olympic's collapse catalyzed a revolution. Aviation in Hellas is now more vibrant and competitive than ever. Aegean and Sky Express are breathing new life into a market long stagnant under Olympic's monopoly.
Talk to young Greeks today and you'll find little nostalgia for Olympic's bygone era. This generation eagerly embraces forward-thinking airlines like Aegean providing connectivity and service unimagined under lumbering old Olympic.
Christina P. relished flying Aegean for her island hopping adventures last summer. "With all the new routes, flying between islands was so fast and easy. And their planes were spotless and modern - nothing like the old Olympic planes I flew as a kid that felt one shake away from falling apart mid-air!"
While Olympic's collapse caused temporary headaches, most Greeks believe the shakeup reinvigorated aviation. Thanos K, who flies frequently for work, appreciates the choice among carriers today. "Now I can pick the airline that best fits my schedule and budget for each trip. Aegean offers great business class while Sky Express has cheap fares. Having options represents real progress."
For remote island communities once dependent on Olympic, reliance on a single airline seems precarious in retrospect. "If Olympic had a strike or canceled flights, we were stranded with no recourse. Now I don't worry if one airline has problems since others step in," notes Maria A., who resides on Kalymnos.
Airlines are racing to provide the intra-Greece connectivity travelers demand. Aegean continues expanding its domestic network to destinations as far flung as Alexandroupoli, Milos, and Mykonos. Regional operator Ellinair links cities like Thessaloniki, Chania, and Santorini.
New niche carriers like Lumiwings focus on unserved markets, connecting Athens with airports craving more options like Volos, Sitia, and Kalamata. Instead of retreating during COVID, Greek airlines added capacity, ready to soar when tourists return.
The result is an air network more robust than anytime since Olympic's glory days. Travelers have an array of choices linking Greece seamlessly at competitive fares. Flying in 2022 bears no resemblance to when Olympic stood alone.