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Lufthansa at 80

Henrik Böhme (sp)January 6, 2006

German flag carrier Lufthansa, one of the biggest airlines in the world, employing more than 90,000 people and carrying more than 50 million passengers a year to more than 170 destinations, was founded 80 years ago.

Soaring to new heightsImage: AP

In the early years of aviation, air travel was a luxury reserved for a select few and the flights themselves entailed a bumpy ride in propeller planes.

During World War II, planes were commandeered for military use and there was very little, if any, civilian air traffic. When World War II ended in 1945, Lufthansa service was halted entirely and the airline liquidated.

However, ten years later, on April 1, 1955, Lufthansa re-emerged as the German national carrier and re-launched regular flight schedules.

Early that morning, shortly after eight, a silver Lufthansa Convair 340 took off from Munich heading to Hamburg via Frankfurt and Cologne. The 17 passengers on board paid 317 deutschmarks for a ticket and the historic flight lasted four hours and 20 minutes.

50 Jahre Lufthansa: Stewardessen in Uniform aus dem Jahr 1955
The service however was as charming as ever back thenImage: AP

At the stops in between, there were elaborate ceremonies and radio reports. "Right now, the twin-engine Convair is taxiing to the terminal in Frankfurt. Numerous guests have gathered here to celebrate this historic and memorable occasion,” is how one report went.

Rebirth of a storied airline

This was the re-birth of an airline after the defeat of Nazi Germany, thanks to a special permit issued by Her Majesty the Queen of England. Civilian passenger traffic was already underway in Germany after the war, but the carriers until 1955 were Air France, SAS or KLM.

But now, it was Lufthansa’s turn. The beginnings were modest and the airline’s early advertisements catered mostly to businessmen and the well-heeled.

"Instead of excessive luxury, you’ll enjoy an atmosphere of elegant coziness with every conceivable comfort -- from air conditioning and pressurized cabins to the marvelous rubber foam, adjustable seats.”

Lufthansa wird 80 Jahre Maschine Fokker F III 1926
A photo from 1926 shows one of the first Lufthansa carriersImage: dpa

Lufthansa was originally founded on January 6, 1926, when German carrier Aero Lloyd and Junkers merged. The company grew rapidly, notching up its one-millionth passenger in 1934. The airline started services to New York and Tokyo, but was essentially turned over to the German air force, the Luftwaffe, during the Second World War.

When the airline began passenger service again in 1955, it had to borrow planes that would never survive today’s safety standards, recalls Werner Bittner, one of Lufthansa’s first pilots after the war.

"I was flying DC-3s that we bought from the French. We didn’t know they’d been used in Indochina. They had bullet holes that had been patched,” Werner said.

Steep growth curve

But after the war, it didn’t take long for a new era to take hold. On March 2, 1960, the first Boeing 707 jet landed in Hamburg.

And ten years after that, the 747, the Jumbo conquered the skies. Its first landing in Germany was in Frankfurt, and the plane’s captain, Josef Förster, remembers how the crowds went wild.

“We really didn’t know what was going on until we landed. Even the police couldn’t hold back the crowd which began running across the airfield to the hangar where we were. Nothing could be done.”

Until the 1990s, Lufthansa was a state-owned enterprise that was losing money until its initial public offering in 1997.

Like most other airlines, Lufthansa, too, slid into crisis after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the SARS epidemic in Asia which sharply curtailed air travel.

Lufthansa Flügel auf dem Frankfurter Flughafen
Lufthansa has bounced back after the crisis yearImage: AP

But a strict cost-saving course brought the company back into the black, says Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the new Lufthansa chairman.

“Lufthansa has grown and become more attractive. After the crisis year of 2003, we have managed to be back successfully on the winning track.”