To mark the centenary of the first international passenger flight (from London to Paris), Delano looks back each week at different phases in the country's history. Buckle up for a ride through 40 years of flight history right up to today.
The year Cargolux was launched, 1970, 2,500 tonnes of freight passed through Luxembourg airport. 48 years later, it had exploded to 895,000 tonnes, according to the aviation authority ANA. The growth was enormous, with quantities doubling almost every year up to 1973. Cargolux, which was created by Luxair along with shipping firm Salen and Icelandair, was a key driver but not only. Passenger numbers were also rising rapidly as Luxair expanded its network. A volley of new destinations including Malaga, Tunis and Brussels helped to bring over 155,000 more passengers to the airport from 1970 to 1971.
To keep up with this demand, the terminal was expanded in 1975, and ever newer aircraft were seen arriving at the airport. In 1972, Luxair bought two Caravelles from Austrian Airlines, which were ideal for longer range destinations. “We were lucky in our choice. We were not satisfied with the Vickers Viscount, it had a lot of hours on the clock,” recalls then head of marketing Théo Breisch.
But then came the first oil shock in 1973, triggered by an embargo on countries viewed as supporting the Yom Kippur War. Prices rose nearly 400% by the end of March 1974 when the embargo ended. Low fuel efficiency and limited capacity convinced executives at the airlines to drop the Caravelle and in 1977, Luxair inaugurated its first 120-seater Boeing 737 200, with a second arriving the following year. “The Boeing was the perfect modern aircraft and economically very important,” Breisch said.
Aviation technology was advancing at a steady pace, bringing efficiency and speed improvements. Luxembourg airport provided an ideal viewing platform for some of the most exciting aircraft around. The supersonic turbo airliner Concorde was seen a couple of times, with the first owned by Air France landing in May 1982, followed by British Airways in March 1985, to promote the reopening of their Luxembourg-Heathrow route.
A concorde owned by Air France. Photo: Musée d'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
The two airlines never struggled to recruit pilots and engineers, according to Breisch and former CEO Roger Sietzen--even if there were few Luxembourgers piloting commercial aircraft in the early days. They had a flurry of interest from Dutch pilots and mechanics starting in 1962, since at the time KLM was impacted by the closure of Dutch colonies in Indonesia and Luxair had ordered an aircraft from the Dutch aviation firm Fokker. “The first chief engineer was Dutch and came through that channel,” Breisch recalled. One Luxair captain, Moritz Suter, even went on to found his own airline, Crossair, which operated flights between Luxembourg and Zurich.
Given that the first aircraft Cargolux operated, a CL44, had been acquired from Icelandair, it was perhaps not surprising that the airline acquired many of its staff too.
Luxembourg’s labour market was also becoming more international. After the establishment of European institutions in Luxembourg, there followed a vast economic development of the financial services sector, requiring ever greater numbers of highly qualified staff from abroad. As a result, the proportion of foreigners in the country doubled from 1971 to 2000, when they represented 36.6% of the population.
This diverse population further fuelled activity at the airport and by 1988 it had passed the one million passenger threshold. “The restaurants, boutiques and tax free shops also took advantage of this situation,” Breisch said. In 1984, the runway was then extended to 4 kilometres for technical reasons related to the altitude of the airport.
1967 photo of the Luxembourg Airport control tower. Photo courtesy of the Musée d'Aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
The 1990s brought vast changes in Europe and the aviation industry. Gender parity was gaining ground and in July 1990, Luxair hired its first female pilot, Pia Meyer. Two years later, men were permitted to join the airline as stewards. The 1991 Gulf war made a slight dent in the until then rapidly growing footfall numbers. As well as causing oil prices to more than double, there was a decline in demand for some tourist destinations served by Luxair. “Luxair had to apply the rules of the market and reduce or cancel flights to destinations such as Tunisia, Egypt ,Turkey and Morocco,” Breisch said. But then new destinations were added to fill this vacuum, with the Canary Islands, Madeira, Portugal and southern. Spain.
If passenger numbers stagnated and freight declined at the airport in 1992, it was not for long. That same year, the Maastricht Treaty was signed, founding the European Union and laying the foundations for a single aviation market. Until that moment, airlines had been forced to obtain permission, or traffic rights, from authorities in the country their aircraft departed from and landed in to operate in their roots. After 1992, new airlines mushroomed, the number of routes served increased almost eightfold from then until now, according to the EU. Most importantly, the cost of air travel fell. “It triggered a price war,” Breisch recalled, adding that it not only impacted European aviation but transatlantic operations and operators in the Middle East. Like most established airlines, Luxair was forced to adapt its rates to stay in business.
According to EU figures, in 1992 the cheapest tickets for a family trip from Milan to Paris cost 16 times more than today. Icelandair lost its USP flying passengers low-cost from Luxembourg to the US via Iceland. They shifted their interest to other airports, operating out of Frankfurt and Paris, bringing an end to an era at Luxembourg Airport. But their loss was not mourned for long.
Luxair’s network continued to expand thanks, in part, to its close cooperation with Lufthansa, which bought a 13% stake in the airline in 1992. Luxair had been built a strong rapport with the German airline since its first flight to Frankfurt back in 1962, which served to feed their global network. “We became an interesting interline partner for Lufthansa and a member of their Miles & More system. Lufthansa wanted to have even closer ties with Luxair and so they took a stake of 13%,” Breisch explained. “Via Frankfurt we offered destinations all over the world. We were natural partners.”
Low-cost airlines like Ryanair, pictured during an inaugural flight between Luxembourg and Toulouse in October 2019, exist in part thanks to the single aviation market. Photo: Vincent Flamion Photography/Ryanair
Luxair Flight 9642
The following decades, were mostly marked by rapid expansion of infrastructure and activity at Findel. Among other things, a new Cargocenter was inaugurated in 1996 and adapted to the Boeing 747 in 2009, while in 2008 the new Terminal A entered into operation. But, it was not all happy PR stories.
The crash of Luxair Flight 9642 on 6 November 2002 is a tragic part of the country’s aviation story. The Luxair passenger plane was flying on a foggy morning from Berlin Tempelhof airport with 19 passengers and three crew members when it crashed on final approach, killing 20 of the 22 passengers and crew. A subsequent investigation cited as the cause a series of non-standard actions resulting in the accidental use of a propeller switch causing the aircraft to stall. The full report can be viewed here.
While crashes are rare considering the vast number of aircraft in operation and the risk considerably lower than 100 years ago, the crash placed a new emphasis on aviation safety in Luxembourg. And, despite crashes reported elsewhere in the world, the demand for air transport in Luxembourg continued to grow. Rapid growth prompted the opening of Terminal B in 2017 and in 2018, passenger numbers passed the four million threshold for the first time.