MIAMI — The second-oldest airline in the world, and oldest in the Western Hemisphere, marks 95 years of flying today, December 5th. In addition, the first of 15 Boeing 787-8s will join the fleet today, intentionally timed with the airlines’s 95th birthday and celebrations that are sure to follow.
Two months after the world’s oldest carrier, KLM, started operations, the airline known today as Avianca began to fly in Colombia. Join us on this Flashback Friday as we look back on the historical highlights of Colombia’s national airline.
At its longest and widest points, Colombia measures more than 1,000 miles from north to south and more than 900 miles from east to west, respectively. In addition it has significant variations in topography and climate, including hot and humid coasts, three rugged mountain ranges dissecting the country with peaks more than 18,000 feet above sea level, plains, deserts and rain forests. This geographic mix made air travel ideal in order to quickly connect these regions, especially given the lack of roads in the country.
On December 5, 1919, in the northern port city of Barranquilla, Colombia, five Colombians and three Germans formed the world’s second airline with the initials SCADTA, roughly translated to Colombian-German Air Transport Company. A German-made Junkers F-13, with a range of 528 miles, made the airline’s maiden flight, which flew a 10-mile mail delivery from Barranquilla to Puerto Colombia. German aviator Helmuth von Krohn piloted this flight. The F-13 fleet grew to nine, and two of the aircraft were modified with floats to be able to visit towns on the long Magdalena River.
The initial success of the SCADTA operation attracted investment, including an agreement with the Colombian government to serve as the country’s mail carrier. The F-13s were also capable of carrying two pilots and four passengers. The first passenger flight took place in September 1920 between Barranquilla and Puerto Berrio. By the mid-1920s, the company had international service to the U.S. and Venezuela. SCADTA’s first CEO was Ernesto Cortissoz, whom the international airport in Barranquilla is named after, but he unfortunately died along with von Krohn when their F-13 crashed just north of Barranquilla in1924.
Despite the sad loss of two of the airline’s pioneers, the company continued to grow. The next major aircraft purchase was in 1937, when SCADTA bought 10 Boeing model 247s. Two years later, the company received its first Douglas DC-3, which flew 200 miles per hour, considered top-end at the time. During this period, Avianca was under the ownership of German scientist and philanthropist Peter von Bauer. With the start of World War II, he sold his shares to Pan Am to keep partial ownership of the airline from falling into Nazi hands.
On June 19, 1940, the new owners merged SCADTA with another Colombian carrier SACO, Spanish acronym for Colombian Air Service. The acronym of the new combined carrier became the familiar Avianca, a Spanish abbreviation for Colombian National Airways. In 1946, a year after the war, routes to Quito, Lima, Panama City, Miami, New York, and Europe were added and flown by Douglas DC-4s and former military equivalent C-54 Skymasters.
1950s – 1970s
The largest and fastest airplane at the time, the Lockheed L-749 Constellation, joined the fleet in 1951. In 1956, the L-1049 Super Constellation joined the airline. That same year, a DC-4 carried the Colombian athletic delegation to the Olympics held in Melbourne, Australia, a 61-hour flight. In 1961, Avianca entered the jet age when it leased two Boeing 707s from Pan Am. That same year, the airline bought two Boeing 720s, shorter but high-performance versions of the 707, which came in very handy considering the 8,300-foot altitude of Bogota, Colombia’s capital and its international airport, El Dorado.
Other jets followed. The Boeing 727-100 entered service in 1966, and the largest 707 variant, the -300 was added in 1969. Avianca also introduced the 737-100 in 1968. However, the 737s left the fleet in 1971, with one of the contributing factors stemming from the low engines ingesting debris at some of Colombia’s smaller airports that were not necessarily designed for jet operations.
By the mid-1970s, the last of the company’s piston engine aircraft were gone, many of them having been sold to smaller airlines in Colombia. Avianca’s jet fleet saw a major milestone in 1976, when the airline received a former Iraqi Airways Boeing 747-100. One curious fact about the 747 arrival has to do with the livery. Avianca essentially replaced the dominant green color of the Iraqi airways paint job with the red it had been using during the 1970s to update its livery. Avianca would operate 747s, including “Combis,” for the next 20 years. The Boeing 727-200 was the next arrival, in1978. Furthermore, the airline had a Boeing-only jet fleet from the retirement of the DC-3 and C-54 in 1975 until the introduction of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 in 1992.
1980s – 1990s
Avianca was not immune to one of the darkest periods of Colombia’s history, the war waged against the state by the infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar. On November 27, 1989, a Boeing 727-100 exploded five minutes after taking off from El Dorado International Airport. All 107 souls onboard perished, as well as three people on the ground. Escobar’s henchmen placed a bomb aboard the aircraft with the objective of murdering future Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, who had actually delayed his travel plans and never made it to the flight. A second theory also pins the blame on Escobar but suggests he targeted one of his rivals.
The Boeing 720 and 707 were retired from the fleet in 1984 and 1993, respectively. Avianca introduced newer Boeing types as replacements: the 767-200 in 1989, the 757-200 in 1992, and the 767-300 in 1994. Also, the 727s were replaced by McDonnell Douglas MD-83s during the 1990s. Moreover, Avianca was able to fly to smaller Colombian airports with the addition of the Fokker F-50 turboprop in 1993.
In 1994, Avianca expanded by incorporating the smaller Colombian airline SAM, as well as helicopter operator Helicol into its operations. SAM operated Avro RJ-100s on domestic and international services mostly out of Bogota and de Havilland DH-6 Twin Otters based out of Medellin’s smaller Olaya Herrea Airport on domestic flights to the country’s smaller, remote airports that could not handle jet-sized aircraft. Avianca’s F-50s were added to the SAM fleet, and these were later joined by F-100 jets to replace the RJ-100s.
2000s – Present
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had a very negative financial impact on most airlines worldwide, including Avianca. In an effort to survive the financial difficulties that followed, Avianca, SAM, and their main national competitor ACES merged into the “Summa Alliance” on May 20, 2002, but this venture lasted less than two years and resulted in the demise of ACES. The continuing difficulties led to Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004 in order to execute a major reorganization.
On December 10, 2004, Avianca presented its reorganization with financial backing from the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation and the Brazilian consortium Synergy Group, which owned the Brazilian carrier OceanAIr among its many holdings. In 2009, Synergy incorporated OceanAir into Avianca and named it Avianca Brazil. It also acquired the small Ecuadorean carrier Aero VIP. The Spanish portion of the “ca” in the “Avianca” abbreviation changed from “Colombia” to “American Continent”
By the end of the last decade consolidation was taking hold in all of the Americas, from Delta-Northwest and United-Continental in the U.S. to LAN Chile starting subsidiaries in Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru. Avianca joined the trend in 2009 by linking up with Central American powerhouse TACA, which already had a Peruvian subsidiary. In 2012, Avianca-TACA joined the Star Alliance, and on May 28, 2013, the company decided to only use the Avianca brand with a new livery that will be adopted by the entire fleet.
Avianca also pursued consolidation within Colombia by buying out Tampa Cargo in 2008, and rebranded the freight operator as Avianca Cargo in 2013. Today, Avianca consists of following the subsidiaries (callsign/original airline name in parenthesis): Avianca Brazil (OceanAir), Avianca Cargo (AeroUnion and TAMPA), Avianca Costa Rica (Lacsa and Sansa), Avianca Ecuador (AeroGal and VIP), Avianca El Salvador (TACA), Avianca Guatemala (Aviateca), Avianca Honduras (Isleña), Avianca Nicaragua (La Costeña), Avianca Peru (TACA Peru), and Helicol.
Over the last five years, the airline has been undergoing a major fleet modernization that consists of all four variants of the Airbus A320 family, A330-200s, and ATR 72-600s. Furthermore, there are orders for 51 A320 NEOs for the entire fleet, while Avianca Brazil will be the sole operator of A350-900s, scheduled to arrive in 2018. The entire network has 4,921 weekly flights to 100 destinations in 26 countries.
I took my first Avianca flight from New York to Bogota when I was eight months old. Moreover, I lived in Colombia from age two to nine and have many fond memories of flying domestically and to Miami on Boeing 707s, 720s, 727s, and the 747. I vividly remember as a five-year-old getting a tour of the first 747 when it first arrived in Bogota in 1976 since my father’s uncle, who started on the DC-3 in the 1930s, was in command of the first crew to fly the “Queen of the Skies” in Colombia.
That same uncle commanded the 707 that flew Pope Paul VI to Colombia in 1968. My father has stories of exciting hops on the DC-3 on the Bogota-Barranquilla route, with his uncle piloting of the aircraft, during a time when radio beacons were the latest navigation technology, but dead reckoning navigation, as well as visually following geographical features like rivers, were still common on some routes. Lastly, I recall plenty of plane spotting weekends in Bogota and buying Avianca postcards at the gift shop. I definitely got my “AvGeek” blood ans passion from that side of the family.
We wish them a feliz cumpleaños on its 95th anniversary!