The Early History of Austrian Airlines

Aviation Airplanes

1. Austrian Airlines’ Origins

Austrian Airlines’ genesis can be traced to March 20, 1918, when the Austrian Postal Administration inaugurated daily scheduled mail service from Vienna to Kiew with intermediate stops in Krakow, Lwow, and Proskurow, and later expansion included Odessa, from Proskurow, and Budapest, from Vienna. When space permitted, passengers were also carried. But a flight prohibition, implemented at the end of World War I, forced its discontinuation.

When the ban was lifted, Austria subsequently reentered the civil aviation market by establishing the Oesterreichische Luftverkehrs AG (OELAG) on May 12, 1923 with an initial one million Crown investment financed by Junkers, a German aircraft manufacturer (49 percent), and various Austrian shareholders (51 percent).

Commencing scheduled service from Munich to Vienna two days later, it operated a single-engine, low-wing Junkers F.13, which featured an enclosed cockpit and passenger cabin. OELAG eventually operated several versions of this rugged, but (then) modern design, and increasing demand soon necessitated larger aircraft, the first of which was a higher-capacity, tri-engine Junkers G.24 delivered in 1927 and the second of which was the more advanced G.31, received the following year.

Perhaps the ultimate design, however, was the Junkers Ju.52/3m, a tri-engine, 18-passenger airliner with a gross weight of 24,000 pounds and a cruise speed in excess of 150 mph that joined the fleet in 1936. Most major East and West European flag carriers also operated the type at this time.

By the following year, OELAG’s route system incorporated Athens, Belgrade, Berlin, London, Paris, Prague, Rome, and Zurich, in addition to several Austrian domestic destinations, with much of the service daily. It eventually became the fourth largest European carrier after Lufthansa, KLM, and Air France, with 975,840 weekly seat-kilometers. Coincident with OELAG’s growth was the completion of five Austrian airports–namely, Graz, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Salzburg, and Vienna.

When Austria was ultimately absorbed into the Third Reich in 1938, OELAG was incorporated into Deutsche Luft Hansa (DLH). Nevertheless, it had flown 120,000 passengers 7.5 million kilometers without fatality during its reign.

2. Initial Growth

When World War II ended, Austria, once again independent, signed the Peace Treaty with all four occupying powers, and re-contemplated scheduled air service by forming a flag carrier. Two such national airlines were actually proposed: Air Austria, formed by the Austrian People’s Party and capitalized by KLM and later Fred Olsen, a Norwegian charter company, and Austrian Airways, formed by the Austrian Socialist Party and financially supported by SAS. Neither ever flew and the two were eventually combined on September 30, 1957 to create an integrated company with an initial AUS 60 million investment which adopted, Phoenix-like, its pre-war name of Oesterreichische Luftverkehrs AG, but whose English equivalent of “Austrian Airlines” was officially used.

Ownership included Austrian private investors, at 42 percent; public enterprises, at 28 percent; SAS, at 15 percent; and Fred Olsen, at 15 percent.

Austrian inaugurated scheduled service on March 31, 1958 after a 20-year suspension with four leased Vickers V.779 Viscounts, a medium-capacity, four-engine turboprop airliner designed in Great Britain and initially operated on the Vienna-Zurich-London route.

Growth proceeded rapidly and, in 1960, it took delivery of the first of four larger-capacity, stretched Vickers V.837 Viscounts, which it inaugurated into service on May 23, and the following year it took delivery of the V.845 for slightly lower-density routes. Both British turboprops provided reliable, economical service, the V.837s employed until 1971.

The Douglas DC-3, the best-selling civil airliner, was also acquired at this time and enabled Austrian to inaugurate domestic services on May 1, 1963, a route that would later be served by Austrian Air Services. This aircraft was replaced by the more advanced, larger-capacity, turboprop-powered Hawker Siddeley HS.748-2 in 1966, another British design.

Austrian Airlines entered the jet age on February 20, 1963 when it used the first of five Sud-Aviation SE.210-VIR Caravelle twin-jets, poising it for its characteristic strategy of operating short- to medium-range, low- to medium-capacity, t-tailed twin-jets on a predominantly European (and later North African and Middle Eastern) route system. Designed in France, the Caravelle, the first economical, short-range, pure-jet airliner, was quiet, cruised above the weather, and reduced flying times between European capitals.

3. Transatlantic Experiment

Contrary to most European flag carriers, which operated transatlantic service to the United Stares and Canada with quad-engine DC-4s since the end of World War II, Austrian Airlines maintained its medium-range route system until April 1, 1969, at which time it stretched its wings across the Atlantic with an intercontinental Boeing 707-320, registered OE-LBA and chartered from Sabena Belgian World Airways. Operated on the Vienna-New York route with an intermediate stop in Brussels, it constituted what could have been considered its “transatlantic experiment,” but, despite Austrian’s prior delay in launching it, it still proved both a premature and financially unsound decision for two primary reasons.

Its Austrian home market was, first and foremost, still too small to support this service, while Vienna-Schwechat Airport was not sufficiently developed as a hub, thus offering few connecting flights to which this transatlantic service could transfer passengers.

After a two-year trial, the 707 was consequently returned to owner Sabena on March 31, 1971, leaving Austrian once again to concentrate on its primarily continental route system, for which nine short-to medium-range Douglas (later McDonnell-Douglas) DC-9-30s were ordered.

Similar in overall design to the Caravelle, but manufactured in the United States, the t-tailed jetliner offered a slightly higher passenger capacity, a higher gross weight, more powerful engines, and improved economics, and with it Austrian entered a new era that would span almost two decades. It later described this design as “the start of something big, classical and still modern.” Delivered on June 19, 1971, the first DC-9-30 and those that followed soon became the mainstay of its fleet.

Another brief intercontinental route was introduced In 1974, this time for the purpose of carrying cargo, when Austrian leased a McDonnell-Douglas DC-8-63F, registered OE-IBO, from Overseas National Airways (ONA) and served Hong Kong, but this service was later discontinued. Other than the single 707-320, the DC-8-63F was its only other large-capacity, long-range, quad-engine jet.

So versatile and popular did the basic DC-9 design prove itself to be, however, that the carrier later ordered five stretched, higher-capacity DC-9-50s, the first of which was delivered on September 14 of the following year.

That operation of these twin-engine aircraft and the discontinuation of its transatlantic attempt were proper strategies for the Austrian national carrier was reflected by its positive growth. On June 26, 1974, for example, a new maintenance base opened at Schwechat International Airport-Vienna. Its value also continued to swell: in 1967 its share capital increased by AUS 140 million to AUS 290 million. In 1969, it further increased to 390 million. And in 1962 it reached the one billion mark. During the three-year period from 1972 to 1974, it equally posted a profit.

Its route system also commensurately expanded: in 1976, when Austrian launched service to Cairo in North Africa and to Stockholm and Helsinki in Scandinavia.

Demand, soon outpacing capacity, prompted an initial order for eight McDonnell-Douglas DC-9-80s to replace its existing DC-9-50s. Also designated DC-9 Super 80s, these aircraft represented the next-generation version of its previous -50 series variant for operation on medium-range sectors and featured a further fuselage stretch for still higher capacity and refanned, higher-thrust, and more fuel-efficient Pratt and Whitney JT8D-209 engines.

Austrian, which shared the distinction of being co-launch customer for the design with Swissair, inaugurated the first elongated DC-9-81 into service on October 26, 1980 on the Vienna-Zurich route with aircraft OE-LDR “Wien.” The twin-jet was later redesignated MD-81 and quickly became the short- to medium-haul workhorse of its fleet.

New additions to its ever-expanding route system included Larnaca and Jeddah in 1979 and Tripoli in 1981.

Another 1980 milestone was marked by the establishment of Austrian Air Services (AAS), which eventually became a wholly-owned subsidiary, for the purpose of operating Austrian domestic routes with two twin-turboprop, 19-passenger Fairchild Swearingen Metro II commuter aircraft. It entered service on April 1.

Austrian plied smooth skies. Indeed, its 1980 balance sheet indicated an AUS 71.5 million net profit, its tenth consecutive one.

The MD-81, intermittently proving itself as optimally suited to its increasing demand route system as the SE.210-VIR, DC-9-30, and DC-9-50 were, was followed by its shorter-fuselage derivative, the MD-87, which Austrian ordered on December 19, 1984 for lower-capacity route sectors. The Austrian Air Services fleet was equally upgraded with the addition of two 50-passenger Fokker F.50 twin-turboprops ordered on September 25 of the following year.

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