Monday, April 01, 2013

The Years Of Flying Dangerously

Aviation history is littered with the wreckage of crashed airplanes and crashed airlines, a wreckage that was and still is a feature of the tourism industry (fortunately nowadays, the wreckage is from failed companies and not from planes smashing into mountainsides).

The growth in tourism from the sixties owed much to the arrival of the charter airline. Though not new in the sixties, the charter nevertheless became synonymous with the transporting of thousands and millions of Britons to sunny Spain so that they could indulge in the new-found fad of the fortnight's holiday in the sun.  

The charter also became synonymous with bad publicity. It was the butt of jokes for poor service and unreliable aircraft, some of which never made it to their destinations or, if they did, failed to return. The airline victim of many of those jokes was Dan-Air, which ended its life known as the airline that was sold for a quid. And some would maintain that BA paid over the odds.

Though the British holidaymaker will recall flights with Dan-Air with a certain amount of horror, tourism was not solely reliant on British carriers. Mallorca's first charter airline was Spantax. Not exclusively a charter, Spantax moved from its original base in Gran Canaria to Palma because of the greater tourist traffic that Mallorca offered. Founded by a one-time Iberia pilot called Rodolfo Bay Wright, a figure in aviation history who has been placed alongside Freddie Laker for his pioneering ways, Spantax was in existence for almost 29 years. It collapsed a quarter of a century ago. On 29 March 1988.

Spantax had, to say the least, a chequered history. In December 1972, a Convair CV990 crashed in Tenerife. All 155 occupants were killed. A year later another CV990 had a mid-air collision with an Iberia DC9. Miraculously, the CV990 was able to make an emergency landing. The DC9 was not able to. All 68 on board were dead. Three years on and there was another disaster, of a different sort. Three passengers died as a result of food poisoning from mayonnaise. In 1980, a Spantax Learjet crashed into hills eight kilometres outside Palma, killing four people.

Rodolfo (Rudy) Bay was certainly a character. The most famous tale that is told of him is of a flight in 1967 to Hamburg with members of the German press that was to demonstrate the safety of Spantax planes. Bay, who was piloting the CV990, displayed great skill in managing to stop the plane only a few metres before it would have smacked into an office building on landing. It was great skill, especially as he had landed at the wrong airport. Needless to say, the German press were not overly impressed.

It is said of Bay, which may or may not be true, that he was on good terms with Franco and that Spantax didn't pay landing fees. It is also said that Franco's government paid for the Spantax hangar at Palma. Whatever the truth of these claims, it has further been suggested that Spantax was not quite the same airline after Franco died. Nevertheless, it lasted another thirteen years, having, in 1986, been bailed out by the González government because it was, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt. Two years later, a five million US dollar loss having been made, rescue financing was not forthcoming and the airline did this time go bust, putting over 800 people out of work.

If this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Spantax collapse, next year will be the 40th anniversary of the crash of a company with which British tourists would have been far more familiar. In August 1974 the Clarksons Travel Group folded, as did its owners, Court Line. It was the most spectacular failure to have affected the holiday industry. At the time, Clarksons was offering a fortnight's full board plus flight in Mallorca for fifty quid. It wasn't a bad price, but unfortunately, and so it was to emerge, most flights were sold at a loss.

At least Clarksons didn't have the same accident record as Spantax but it did have an accident. The company chartered a Dan-Air Comet that, in July 1970, crashed in  Gerona en route to Barcelona. 112 people died.

Going on holiday in the sixties and seventies was more of an adventure than it is today. It was a journey, for many, into the unknown. It could also be a journey that came with a certain amount of danger. There may still be risks of airlines and tour operators going belly-up, but, thanks God, the chances of the aircraft doing belly-flops are far, far lower. 

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