An early photo of a Loftleidir stewardess in front of one of the airline's aircraft
This instalment in the Delano aviation series looks at how the world's first low-cost airline used Luxembourg as a stepping stone for continental traffic and looks back at the birth of Luxair.
Germany was the first country in the world to found its own national airline, Delag, which began operating Zeppelin airships in 1909. By 9 January 1948, when Luxembourg launched national carrier Luxembourg Airlines Company, there were already a number of large players in the market serving nearby cities including Brussels. Luxembourg was not to be left out.
Former teacher turned pilot and government attaché Fred Welter, who had for years pushed for an international airport, was among those setting their sights on a national carrier. He recognised in a report in 1946 that a Luxembourg national airline could never compete with neighbouring national carriers flying long-haul. However, they could tap into the growing demand from the business community making regular trips to nearby cities for work. There was also a strong case to offer a “feeder line” to other international airports. He was preaching to the converted—then transport minister Robert Schaffner wrote at the time that countries which fail to adopt a bold aviation policy would “be handicapped” in terms of aeronautic relations but also in their economy.
And so, in 1948 with an investment of 6 million francs, Luxembourg Airlines was born with 2 DC3 aircraft.
A Luxembourg Airlines plane. Photo: Musée d'aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
A slow start
A report from the time by Frank A Hawkins recorded the firm’s first flight to Paris’ Le Bourget airfield, operated on a Douglas aircraft, on 2 February 1948. The following day there was a second flight to Zurich and then on 13 February, a third to Frankfurt. The Luxembourg State, Banque International and a few other private shareholders held a minority stake while Scottish Aviation held 60%.
This firm had the know-how and the staff. It operated two DC3s bearing the Luxembourg red lion on its livery. According to Hawkins, the pilots and maintenance crew were all Britons, only the stewardesses were Luxembourgers.
Despite the initial euphoria, the project lasted just three years and is thought to have encountered financial difficulties.
Scottish Aviation sold its stake, and a new operator was appointed in Seaboard & Western, an airline founded by US veteran WWII pilots the Norden brothers in 1946.
It is thought the American airline wanted to obtain the traffic rights to operate flights between Luxembourg and the US. However, the US refused. Luxembourg Airlines leased a C46 Curtiss to the company to operate freight services to European airports, from which they flew to the US. The national carrier, meanwhile, moved into handling for other airlines using Findel. Among the biggest was Belgian airline Sabena.
“Sabena had an interest in Luxembourg because around Luxembourg there was a large number of US and Canadian military forces camps,” Théo Breisch, Luxair’s former vice president and head of marketing who started his career with Sabena explained, adding: “These people had money because the [US] dollar was very high and they were travelling everywhere in their free time through Europe.”
Sabena viewed Luxembourg's airport as a potential feeder into its cities, from which passengers could be flown to the US and Canada.
A Loftleidir plane at Findel Airport. Loftleidir later became Icelandair. Photo: Musée d'aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
Low-cost flights in Luxembourg
There was one other important operator using Findel, the first ever low-cost airline, Loftleidir, which later became Icelandair following a merger with Flugfélag Íslands. Headquartered in Iceland, it wanted to operate cheap flights between the US and continental Europe via Reykjavik. Its representative in Luxembourg, Einar Aakrann, secured traffic rights in the grand duchy. The US insisted they would only grant rights if Loftleidir joined the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which at the time ensured all members charged the same fares.
But Loftleidir’s “USP” was being able to under-cut other carriers on price. Joining IATA would destroy its business model. Not willing to give up on its national carrier, the Icelandic government reportedly suggested that the Americans move their Icelandic military base elsewhere.
The American authorities ceded and Loftleidir operated in Luxembourg from 1955 to 1998. Many argue that this airline, dubbed the “hippy airline” for the type of customers attracted to its low-ticket prices put Luxembourg on the map. According to Icelandair, among the 300,000 passengers it flew to Luxembourg each year at its busiest time was former US president Bill Clinton, a student at the time.
A second chance
Findel’s future was further secured with the closure of the Esch aerodrome to develop new homes. But it needed regular traffic to remain viable.
In 1962, Luxembourg’s carrier was reborn as Luxair with an injection of new capital and ownership shared between banks and the steel industry.
Luxair flew its inaugural commercial flight to Paris on 2 April 1962. It was a first in more ways than one. Luxair had obtained the prototype of the F27 Fokker, a modern turboprop developed by Fokker in Holland. “That was the first Fokker 27 I operation,” said Breisch, adding: “We immediately ordered another two Fokkers.” When the first arrived in 1963, which they christened “Prince Henri”, Luxair returned the prototype. Slowly, Luxair developed its network. After Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam came Zurich in 1963, in 1964 Nice and Palma de Majorca, then in 1965 London Heathrow, Milan and Barcelona.
Planespotters sit on the terrace of Findel airport. Photo: Musée d'aviation Mondorf-les-Bains
The network expansion did not come easily, however. If Loftleidir gave Luxembourg a good name among backpackers, the same could not be said with other national carriers. The country’s association with Loftleidir increased fears among other other countries that Luxair would serve as a feeder airline for Loftleidir and compete with their national carriers for passenger traffic to North America.
Breisch recalled in particular the long discussions with French, British and Greek authorities to convince them to give traffic rights. “They were all against it until the day we, from the commercial side, convinced their airline we could cooperate,” said Breisch. Each new destination came only after hard graft, convincing countries. It paid off, and passenger numbers through Findel airport tripled in four years, from 70,249 in 1961 to 214,189 in 1965.