19 January 2001

Debt-ridden airline
with colourful past
faces Olympian task
to find partner

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, wife of Olympic Airways founder Aristotle Onassis, was a “courteous passenger”; Former Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, and wife Dimitra “Mimi” Liani, an ex-Olympic Airways stewardess. Her abuse of power in his party forced his resignation as leader.

Olympic Airways has had a rich history – linked with Aristotle Onassis is has become part of the Greek national psyche. It now faces an uncertain future

Patrick Comerford

The Greek Government is seeking a strategic investor to buy a 65 per cent stake in the ailing state-owned Olympic Airways, in the hope of ensuring the flag carrier’s survival. “Expressions of interest” for the cash-strapped carrier are being sought from companies experienced in aviation, with a solid financial background and a restructuring plan.

The sale would form part of an extensive restructuring process that would leave the Greek state with some debt-ridden parts of Olympic Airways, which has accumulated debts of about $100 million.

Today, Olympic Airways is among the 50 largest airlines in the world, with 33 Boeing and Airbus aircraft and about 8,500 employees. But the company's pre-Olympic history goes back 70 years to 1930, when the first Greek airline was established as the Icarus partnership, replaced within a few months by the Hellenic Air Transport Company (EEES). The new company's first scheduled flight to Thessaloniki was inaugurated the following year, carrying the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, among the 28 enthusiastic passengers.

Technical Airline Enterprises (TAE) was established in 1935, but with the outbreak of the second World War the airline was placed at the service of Greece's war efforts against Germany. Civil aviation resumed in 1946 with TAE back in the air, although during the Greek civil war, TAE domestic flights were often hit in crossfire.

[Onassis] was
stern, distant
and inquiring.

He had a
critical eye, so
we always tried
to be perfect

In April 1957, TAE was bought by shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis from the Greek state and renamed Olympic Airways. At the time, Onassis was at the zenith of his legendary career. He had already succeeded as a tanker tycoon, and with his wife, Tina Livanou, and their children, Alexander and Christina, had reached international celebrity status.

“The airplane was a new field for him,” Captain Pavlos Ioannidis, one of his closest associates for two decades, later recalled. “He wanted to fly all over the world, as he wanted to send his fleet of ships all over the world. That was it. Cost couldn’t stop him; nothing could. Proof of this is that he started with Dakotas and DC4s and ended up flying to five continents.”

A Dakota from TAE was decorated with the new airline logo – five Olympic circles that had to be altered later because the Olympic symbol is protected under international law – and Captain Ioannidis flew the first flight from classical Athens to Byzantine Thessaloniki.

Denise Karagiorga, the sole cabin crew member, along with the captain, the co-pilot and the radio operator, later recalled: “We didn’t serve a meal that day because it was a short flight. Nothing out of the ordinary happened.”

But Vassilis Vasilikos, the author of Z and later Greek ambassador to Unesco, saw a deeper, cultural significance in Olympic’s first flight: “By inaugurating the link between Thessaloniki and Athens 40 years ago, it succeeded in joining Byzantium and antiquity, the two main constituents of our national identity.”

A few months after taking over Olympic, Onassis provided a plane to bring home the body of the Cretan writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, who had died in exile. The airline had become part of the Greek national psyche.

In its first years, the new national airline had just 865 employees and 15 propeller planes – 14 DC3s and one DC4 – linking the Greek capital with Mytilini (Lesbos), Belgrade, Frankfurt and Thessaloniki, which had connections to Istanbul and Belgrade. One of those early flights was halted on the runway, and the passengers disembarked, because “one of our wheels had been borrowed from TWA”, Ioannidis recalled recently. “They needed it and came to get it back.”

But the airline grew rapidly during the 18 years between 1957 and 1975 when it was owned by Onassis. The first international route, Athens-Rome-Paris-London, was launched in 1957, and in 1958 new routes were opened from Athens to Zurich-Frankfurt and to Tel Aviv. In the mid-1960s, the Athens-New York route was inaugurated, with Pavlos Ioannidis flying the first transatlantic flight.

Mr Ioannidis remembers the touches Onassis brought to the airline. “When we launched our European routes, he put in gold-plated cutlery. In first class he put a candle on the tables. He wanted a piano on the 707s and 747s.” Denise Karagiorga, the sole flight attendant on the first flight in 1957, knew Onassis. “He was the man who never let anybody know when he was going to show up,” she told Olympic’s in-flight magazine, Kenisi (Motion). “He might well show up at the last moment. He was stern, distant and inquiring. He had a critical eye, so we always tried to be perfect.”

Stavroula Stefanou, one of Olympic Airway’s most experienced flight attendants, remembers meeting Jackie Kennedy soon after her marriage to Onassis. But she “didn’t have any special demands. I remember she just asked me to bring her a vodka and not to wake her up until half-an-hour before landing in Paris ... She was very courteous and kept her distance.”

On a flight to Mykonos, the crew helped deliver a baby. The pilot was invited to become the godfather, and at the baptism the management of Olympic Airways was named as the godmother.

But one ex-flight attendant has also been associated with the fall of a government. The late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou met Dimitra Liani, a flight attendant popularly known as “Mimi”, on an Olympic flight. Their open affair and the public humiliation of his second wife, Margaret Papandreou, contributed to the election defeat of his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) in June 1989. They married the following month, but her abuse of power in the party eventually forced his resignation as party leader.

Today, Olympic admits its “Achilles’ heel” is the under-developed state of Greece’s airports. But the 2004 Olympic Games have brought a rush to improve standards, and a new airport to serve Athens is being built at Sparta by March. Whoever buys Olympic must operate out of the new airport.

This full-page feature was first published in the Business This Week section of ‘The Irish Times’ on 19 January 2001

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