April 6, 1957
Shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis officially launched Olympic Airways in Greece. The genesis of this enterprise can be traced to three airlines that been established in Greece by 1947: Technical and Aeronautical Exploitations Company (TAE); Hellenic Airlines; and Aeroporiki Metfori Elados (AME). In 1951, the poor financial performances of these airlines led the Greek government to merge all three of them into a single air carrier. This new company, which was privately owned for the most part with some involvement from the government, was called TAE Greek National Airlines.
Just like the three airlines from which it had been formed, however, TAE Greek National Airlines experienced major financial problems. This resulted in the government nationalizing the airline in 1955. Within the next couple of years, the government sold TAE Greek National Airlines to Onassis. He reorganized the company and renamed it Olympic Airways.
Onassis had been born to Greek parents sometime around 1906 in the port city of Smyrna (present-day İzmir) in what was then the Ottoman Empire (now part of the Republic of Turkey). Over the course of several decades, the entrepreneurial and ambitious Onassis made a huge fortune and established himself as one of the world’s richest and most famous men. A leading source of his wealth came from the massive fleet of freighters, oil tankers, and various other vessels that he developed. With his acquisition of TAE Greek National Airlines and subsequent inauguration of Olympic Airways, Onassis leveraged considerable financial resources and his outsized personality to leave an unmistakable imprint on another major transportation industry.
Onassis’s hands-on management of his new airline was evident early on by what it was called. He chose to include Olympic in the airline’s name because it reflected his great passion for everything relating to Ancient Greece. This naming pattern also extended to many of Onassis’s ships, which included Olympic Legacy, Olympic Palm, and Olympic Explorer.
The strong influence of Onassis on the branding of Olympic Airways could also be seen in how the company’s logo evolved. The airline’s initial logo featured a white eagle resembling a propeller and also contained five rings and the name Olympic. By 1959, Onassis was directing his staff to design a new logo. He specifically wanted an actual reproduction of the five interlocking rings (representing Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania) used to promote the Olympic Games.
After the International Olympic Committee prohibited the duplication of this image by claiming exclusive rights to it, the Olympic Airways staff came up with a unique adaptation of the design. This logo featured a total of six rings, with five of those rings standing for the aforementioned geographical areas likewise represented in the image for the Olympic Games and the sixth ring standing for Greece only. The color scheme for this logo was yellow, red, blue, and white.
Olympic Airways also sought to set itself apart from other airlines through the introduction of distinct and high-style uniforms for flight attendants. Jean Dessès, a renowned French fashioner designer of Greek descent, created the first of these uniforms for Olympic Airways in 1957. Additional and similarly chic outfits for the airline’s flight attendants would be created over time by such other notable fashion designers as Coco Chanel and Pierre Cardin.
Another example of the panache with which Onassis ran Olympic Airways was his purchase of gold-plated utensils for the dining services for passengers on the airline’s planes. In addition, passengers in many of the first-class cabins of those planes were treated to pianists playing music on board.
Along with its well-earned reputation for exotic and luxurious travel amenities, the Athens-based Olympic Airways quickly became a formidable competitor within the airline industry across the globe. Olympic Airways originally provided flights from Greece to western Europe. Eventually, the airline expanded its services to also include North America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. By the 1960s, Olympic Airways was one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world. After Olympic Airways inaugurated service between Greece and Australia in 1972, it became widely known as the Airline of the Five Continents.
By 1974, though, Olympic Airways was reeling from several major setbacks. These included employee strikes, a shortage of passengers, and a sharp increase in fuel prices. The end result of all of this and other factors was the takeover of Olympic Airways by the Greek government on New Year’s Day in 1975. (Onassis died less than three months later.)
Olympic Airways remained in service for a few more decades. The carrier, which was formally renamed Olympic Airlines in 2003, ceased operations altogether at the end of 2009. Its assets were acquired by the similarly named Greek regional airline Olympic Air.
For more information on Olympic Airways (also known as Olympic Airlines), please check out https://www.britannica.com/topic/Olympic-Airlines
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