Austria’s 5-star Airline at Fifty

In an Age of Privatization, it’s Unclear If National Carriers Still Make Sense

Austrian Airlines

An Austrian Airlines attendant in the red livery posing with a pilot colleague | Photo: AUA

“Ladies and Gentlemen, your Austrian Airlines flight OS093 to Washington D.C. in cooperation with United Airlines and TAROM is now ready for boarding at gate A04,” a young Austrian employee calls out into her microphone.

I present my boarding pass to one of the women dressed in a red uniform, and walk down the gangway. Approaching the plane, Johann Strauß II’s Blue Danube Waltz, Austria’s second hymn, floats out over the speakers. I sit down, and take out the magazine Skylines, with its anniversary supplement reminding me of Austrian’s 50th anniversary. 

Sneered at first because of its airline code AUA – which means ‘ouch’ in German, Austrian Airlines has been able to establish itself over the last half-century as one of the safest and highest-quality airlines in the world. For example, this year, Business Traveller Magazine voted Austrian the second best airline in Europe, and the best in terms of service, food, and drink. According to Skytrax, a UK-based company specialized in evaluating airline quality and awarding the world airline awards, AUA is categorized as a 4-star airline – it’s noteworthy, however, that no European airline is among the only five 5-star airlines. Moreover, it got a Skytrax award for best Business class catering in 2006. Lastly, Tyrolean Airways, which belongs to the “Austrian” family, won this year’s ERA (European Regions Airline) Silver Award for the best European Airline.

It has not always been easy, admitted CEO Alfred Ötsch on the occasion of a gala on March 31st, but today Austrian’s 100 airplanes can be considered as the country’s ambassadors around the world. Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer called Austrian Airlines the Republic’s business card abroad.

There are actually several anniversaries in Austrian aviation history, besides AUA’s 50th. Ninety years ago, on Apr. 1, 1918, the first international airmail route was inaugurated between Vienna and Kiev, via Krakow and Lemberg. And 85 years ago, on May 3, 1923, Austria’s first air transport company the OELAG (Österreichische Luftfahrts AG) was founded as part of a European alliance called Transeuropa-Union. Since Austria was not allowed to build or own big planes in the wake of World War I, OELAG’s first plane “Österreich” was built in Sweden, had a Swiss registration number, and was flown by a German pilot. At that time, a flight from Vienna to Berlin cost 175 Schilling, the flight time was three and a half hours, and windows could be opened.

Suddenly, my body is pressed back against the seat by the acceleration of the Boeing 767, Austrian’s second biggest plane. An on-board camera transmits live pictures to the screen integrated into the seats, so I look at the runway while the heavy plane is slowly airborne. While the plane steadily reaches its travel speed of between 900 and 1000 kilometers per hour, I read over the page again in disbelief that passengers were once allowed to open the windows on a plane. Less than an hour later the plane passes Berlin, en route to the United States almost 8,000 kilometers from its airport of departure, and I realize what a long way aviation has come.

After the Anschluss, OELAG was taken over by Lufthansa, which meant the end of commercial Austrian aviation for almost 20 years. It wasn’t until 1955, when the last occupying forces withdrew, that Austria regained full control over its airspace, and the prohibition of commercial aviation was lifted. But there hadn’t been much government interest in the foundation of an airline. Julius Raab, Federal Chancellor from 1953 to 1961, insisted: “I am unimpressed by this flying business. It costs more than we can afford.”

But he was wrong.

As soon as the Staatsvertrag was signed, two lobbies formed: The industrialists’ association, the bank Creditanstalt and the Viennese ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) founded Air Austria, an airline supported by Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM). At the same time, the Ministry of Transport and Tourist Office and the SPÖ (Austrian Social Democratic Party) founded Austrian Airways, supported by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). Those two airline companies merged in 1957 to form the state-owned airline Austrian Airlines, and finally got the venture off the ground.

On March 31, 1958, at 8:30 am, a Vickers Viscount 779 turboprop plane took off for its maiden flight from Vienna Schwechat to London.

Maria Jackl, who was a flight attendant on Austrian’s first flight, recounted in an interview with Der Standard how exciting those early flights were. Flight attendants had to improvise a lot at first, sometimes sleeping on the plane or in schools or churches. As compared to today’s flight attendants, “we were much friendlier,” she added. “And because there were fewer passengers on board, we could dedicate more attention to them.”

I am sitting in one of the last rows of the plane as I had booked with one of Austrian’s Star Alliance partners, United Airlines. Looking to the front of the plane, there are more than 35 rows with 9 seats each. In between the rows, at least eight flight attendants serve drinks to the passengers. A film (“Enchanted”) is just beginning, one of the about 20 films offered as part of Austrian’s long distance flight entertainment program, and I am served a vegetarian meal, which I had selected from a variety of at least 15 special meals- from Koscher to Asian Vegetarian, and low-Carbohydrate. Enjoying the view on the Irish coast and the city Galway, one of my adopted homes, the delicious DO&CO food pleasantly teases my tongue. 

Austrian is among the safest airlines in the world, one of only five airlines worldwide without any casualties since 1980. To be precise, only one Austrian Airlines plane has ever crashed, that one during a descent into Moscow because of bad weather conditions, according to official sources – although rumors persist that there were Western spies on the plane, and that it was given wrong directions by the Soviet air control tower so it crashed into a mountain.

While the airline started off carrying only 25,567 passengers in 1958, by 2008, 10,8 million people choose to travel with Austrian every year to 130 destinations. Since 1994, Austrian has acquired several short haul carriers, including Lauda Air, which currently operates Austrian charter flights, Rheintalflug, and Tyrolean Airways, which operate most domestic, regional, and short distance flights under the brand name Austrian Arrows.

From its original four turboprop planes, today AUA has a fleet of 99 planes, including four Boeing 777 long distance planes, named Sound of Music, Heart of Europe, Dream of Freedom, and Spirit of Austria, operating to destinations like Bombay, Tokyo, Chicago, and Beijing. The average age of the planes is 8.6 years. In comparison, Lufthansa’s planes are on average 11.73 years old.

Since 1988, Austrian has become majority privatized, but continues to be criticized because of its government affiliation. Niki Lauda, founder of Lauda Air and FlyNiki, claimed that Austrian is not free to act because of political influence.

“AUA has to remain Austrian, such that its stamp continues to be red-white-red,” Lauda says. While ÖIAG, Österreichische Industrieholding AG, retains 40 percent of the company, several foreign investors have begun cooperations with the airline. Recently, Saudi-Arabian investor Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, has invested another €150 million in the airline, giving him a 20% share. Ötsch justified this decision: “With him we can realize our plan to aggressively expand into the Middle East and retain our independence,” Ötsch said.

But now, only a few weeks after Austrian’s anniversary celebration, more bad news seems to endanger the airline’s future. The company’s indebtedness has quadrupled in the first quarter, to €60 million over last year, and Al Jaber has threatened to withdraw his investment, if the contract signing planned for the shareholders’ meeting on May 7, should for any reason, not take place.

However, if all goes well, Austrian’s planes will continue their “ambassadorial role” of bringing Austria to the world.

 As I take the last sip of my champagne, the plane begins with its descent. After more than 9 hours and 30 minutes, the Austrian plane touches smoothly onto the tarmac of another continent. Folding up my grass-green blanket and putting the small red pillow on the seat, I gather my things and head for the exit, thinking of a quote by pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 

“If you wish to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

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