By Ilektra Takuridu.
On April 6, 1957, Aristotle Onassis renamed TAE Greek National Airlines (TAE) to Olympic Airways, thus propelling the golden era of Greek aviation.
The business started off humbly with only domestic flights and grew to become one of the largest airline companies linking Greece to the rest of the world.
Before Aristotle bought TAE, the Greek aviation industry was facing difficulties. In 1951, the three main airline companies operating in Greece merged together to form TAE – this was a decision made by the Greek state to try and save the industry.
Four years later, the government initiative did not work and they were forced to sell TAE due to financial problems. The state could not successfully find a buyer for the airline and repurchased it.
Finally, in 1956, they reached an agreement with Aristotle Onassis to buy the airline. However, it was not until 1957 when Aristotle decided to change the company name and the historic Olympic Airways was launched.
Who was the man that saved Greek Aviation?
Aristotle Onassis, or ‘Ari’ as known to the public, was a Greek shipping entrepreneur who owned the world’s largest privately-owned shipping fleet and was one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential persons of his time.
Onassis was born in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), in 1906 and fled to Greece in 1922 with his family, after the Great Fire of Smyrna. At only 17, Ari moved to Argentina and made a fortune as a tobacco trader and shipping owner during the second world war. His business dealings led him around the world and eventually back to his Greek roots when he purchased TAE and created Olympic Airways.
The company was already in a poor financial state when Aristotle bought it, not only because the people of Greece had little interest in flying, but also because of the negative opinions of airlines.
To make Greeks start trusting air transport, Onassis launched “aviation days of 1957 scheme” giving out short flights for free, this engaged the Greek population in flying. The next step he took was to buy the most cutting edge technology to change the stigma around flights being unsafe. Under Onassis’ management, the company developed a reputation as luxurious and elegant.
The cabin crew wore uniforms designed by the famous Pierre-Cardin, and the passengers could eat with golden cutlery specially made for the company. This was a crucial and historic moment because this had never happened in any other aviation company.
Another iconic moment for Olympic Airways under Onassis was 1971 when he formed a subsidiary airline, the Olympic Aviation. He invested in smaller planes which helped aviation to smaller airports, making flying to the islands more efficient and economical.
A huge moment for the company’s international recognition was in 1972 when Olympic Airways launched flights from Greece to Australia. The flight route was exactly from Athens to Melbourne and was twice a week via Bangkok and Singapore.
In 1973, Onassis’ influence in the Greek aviation world was suddenly stopped after his son tragically died in a plane crash. He soon sold the company’s shares and its future was left in the hands of the Greek state. Unfortunately, the company faced many problems and eventually ceased operations in 2009.
Aristotle’s management of the company successfully changed Greek people’s views of flying, which greatly helped the Greek economy, tourism and connecting Greek people around the world. His involvement in aviation and time at Olympic Airways has had such impact on the aviation industry in Greece and his influence has been felt until today.