Austrian celebrates 50th anniversary

30 Mar 2008 by Mark Caswell

Business Traveller looks at the future of Austrian Airlines, 50 years after its first commercial scheduled flight took off from Vienna bound for London

Passengers on board flight OS201 to London on March 31, 1958 were flown in a turboprop Vickers Viscount 779 aircraft, with routes to Frankfurt, Zurich, Stuttgart, Paris, Warsaw and Rome also being added in the first year of service.

Fifty years on and the airline’s expansion is very much focussed on Central and East European (CEE) countries, with new routes for the summer schedule including Nizhny Novgorod (Russia’s fourth largest city), the southern Russian city of Sochi (hosts of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games), and Baia Mare in northern Romania. Austrian’s Focus East strategy means the carrier now serves 24 CEE countries, with over 580 weekly connections.

At the celebrations for Austrian’s 50th anniversary, Rudolf Mertl, executive vice-president of network and sales for the airline, described the CEE routes as the “backbone” of the carrier, adding the it is now the market leader in terms of the number of weekly connections and destinations offered in the region, and second to Lufthansa in terms of traffic numbers.

Mertl said: “We’re looking at adding, three, four or five [CEE] destinations per year. Some of these countries will join the EU in time, which will also make access to traffic rights easier.” He added that Austrian is employing a “first-mover” strategy in the region, going after secondary destinations not yet served by a low-cost airline.

Elsewhere he pointed towards Middle East expansion, with flights to Riyadh and Jeddah due to come online in August this year. Indeed, the planned investment of 150 million euros into the airline by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber demonstrates the carrier’s ambitions for this region.

The Saudi businessmen has Austrian citizenship and owns a number of hotels in the country, and such an investment would effectively equate to around 20 per cent ownership in the carrier. Austrian will serve these Middle Eastern destinations with A320 aircraft configured with 24 business class seats (46-inch pitch, 2-2 across) in what it is calling its “Austrian Premium Service” concept.

Of course, eastern European and Middle Eastern expansion has come at the expense of some long-haul flights, with routes to Australia scrapped (see online news August 3, 2006), although Mertl pointed out that through its codeshare with Thai Airways, Austrian now offers a significant number of connections Down Under via Bangkok.

The carrier also launched flights to Chicago last year, feeding into fellow Star carrier United’s hub. The airline is working on a general long-haul rule of return rotation of flights being under 24 hours (Chicago, Toronto, Washington, New York, Beijing, Mumbai and Delhi all come in under this marker), allowing it to increase aircraft usage.

Austrian should move into the new Skylink terminal at Vienna Airport in summer 2009, and will be joined there by other Star Alliance carriers, which should make the airport’s already impressive 25-minute minimum connection time even more appealing.

The airline also plans to launch an inflight business magazine called SucCEEd, and has recently employed top-end inflight caterer Do and Co to provide its onboard meal service.

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Report by Mark Caswell

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