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Best of Airways — Condor Boeing 747s: Jumbo Charter Pioneers

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Best of Airways — Condor Boeing 747s: Jumbo Charter Pioneers

Condor

Best of Airways — Condor Boeing 747s: Jumbo Charter Pioneers
July 24
11:00 2018
Story by Andreas Spaeth • Photos by Condor

For a carrier that owned only a handful of Boeing 727s and two Boeing 707s, it was an extremely bold move.

At the time, Boeing’s Jumbo jet was still a global sensation. Not many more than a hundred were operating, and they were flown by prestigious carriers like Air France (AF) and Qantas (QF). Pan Am (PA) had inaugurated the world’s first 747 services only about a year earlier, on January 15, 1970.

The sheer scale of the Jumbo—71m (233ft) long, double the length of the 707—was still hard to grasp for many people. The big tail, painted bright yellow at Condor, towered over many airport terminals. The characteristic hump, the upper deck and the cockpit above the main cabin became a kind of trademark.

Flying was extraordinarily expensive in the early 1970s, with IATA vigorously guarding high fares. And, all of a sudden, this humble airline acquired a factory-fresh Boeing 747. Just a short while before, the charter pioneer had been having trouble filling its 50-seater Fokker F27s on their multi-stop journeys from Germany over the Alps to the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean.

“The news of Condor ordering the Boeing 747 seemed almost like a joke at the time,” recalls Karl-Peter Ritter, a current Condor Pilot and company historian. “The headquarters then consisted of two wooden barracks at Frankfurt Airport (FRA), and even the big airlines were concerned about being able to fill this gigantic aircraft in the long run.”

Ritter summed it up: “In the early 1970s, the thought of a Boeing 747 acting as a holiday jet was about as unlikely as having a woman becoming chancellor of Germany or elementary school kids being equipped with mobile phones.”

The German charter flight market was booming at the time. Although, in 1971, only 8% of holiday trips in Europe involved a flight, about 35% of all German holidaymakers boarded a plane. However, in the early 1970s, thanks to a provision in German finance laws that made an investment in airlines a lucrative tax deduction, big overcapacities on the charter market were foreseeable.

Condor, as a serious player, wanted to be ahead of the pack and purposely favored big aircraft with low seat-mile costs, in an attempt to beat its fledgling competitors, which operated ramshackle second-hand aircraft. But even Lufthansa had only acquired its first 747-130 on March 9, 1970—the second international airline after Pan Am.

By April 1971, Lufthansa had received four 747s, the latest being its first 747-200. And, of course, it was Condor’s mother airline that provided the charter affiliate with the chance of getting its hands on a Jumbo jet early on—or so it seemed.

Boeing 747s were in high demand, and there was a lead-time of 24 months before an order could be fulfilled. Condor considered itself lucky to find one delivery position on an option list provided by Lufthansa in early 1970 that promised delivery in spring of 1971.

Actually, the 747 was deemed a bit too big by Condor, the fleet planners of which were looking for an aircraft with between 300 and 400 seats, not the almost 500 fitted in the 747 in charter configuration. Still, it took the opportunity. That was because delivery slots for either McDonnell Douglas DC-10s or Lockheed L-1011 TriStars were even more difficult to get; these aircraft would have arrived in 1974 at the earliest.

Condor figured that swiftly introducing the 747 on charter flights would bring a significant competitive advantage. On April 29, 1970, at a press conference in Cologne, Condor announced its purchase of a single Boeing 747. Behind the scenes, preparations were running in high gear for crew training, sales campaigns with tour operators, and many grounds handling challenges.

But, just as everything was looking good, sobering news came from Lufthansa’s headquarters. In point of fact, there was no delivery position for an aircraft in April 1971. A Boeing secretary had made a typing error in the options list. The aircraft that Condor craved would be delivered at least a year later than expected, no sooner than April 1972.

Boeing immediately sent its German representative to Condor for crisis meetings, looking for a solution to this dilemma over the course of a whole night. Only at 04:00 German time did comforting news arrive from Seattle: if Condor would not ask for any technical changes to the base type ordered by Lufthansa, Boeing could squeeze in an extra delivery slot for spring 1971. Condor gladly accepted—and sent the secretary who had made the typing error a big bouquet of flowers.

Condor had the cutting edge on the market.

On April 2, 1971, a big welcome bash held in Düsseldorf (DUS) greeted the first holiday Jumbo of any airline worldwide. Famously, with no seats yet installed in the nose section, a table tennis tournament was held during the delivery flight from Seattle.

Although named Yankee Foxtrot, the Boeing 747-230B (D-ABYF • MSN 20493 • LN 128) was very quickly given the nickname Fritz by both the media and the public. Although never officially christened—Condor does not name its aircraft—the nickname stuck. It was even used in official company communications.

Rather than introducing the 747 at its base in Frankfurt, Condor saw the Rhine/Ruhr region around Düsseldorf, with its 10 million inhabitants, as the ideal market in which to deploy the huge capacity of the 747. The city was also the home of LTU (LT), Condor’s main competitor. For the occasion, Condor had flown in the South American musician Facio Santillan to give live performances of his panpipe hit song aptly named El Condor Pasa.

Condor initially put in 470 Economy Class seats in a single class, by far the highest-density seating on any 747. It was a quantum leap and more than 2.5 times the maximum capacity of its previously available single aircraft, the high-density 707, which ‘only’ boasted 182 seats.

Including babies and infants—who did not have their own seats— and the 16-strong crew, the Condor 747 carried over 500 people on many flights in 1971, a feat today achieved only by the Airbus A380, which seats just 30% more travelers than the 747.

Condor never succumbed to the temptation of installing a lounge on the small upper deck. Instead, it put 16 seats there from the start.

 

A month after delivery, on May 1, 1971, Fritz took off on its first revenue flight, 12 days ahead of the original schedule, as Condor had gained operational experience from Lufthansa’s 747 learning curve.

The inaugural flight—to Palma de Mallorca (PMI)—actually did take off from FRA. The airline put on quite a show—literally—for the 452 human passengers, plus a young suckling pig as a lucky charm.

German swimwear brand Triumph had professional models do the catwalk in the Jumbo’s aisles, presenting the 1971 collection during the flight, to the utter fascination of many male passengers, as the existing photos clearly show.

The buzz was even bigger in Palma than in Germany; thousands of spectators flocked to the airport to see the aircraft. Condor had to do two demo flights to accommodate all the invited guests and local dignitaries on Germany’s favorite holiday island before the celebrations—with a flute performance, frankfurters, and German beer—took over.

Logistically, introducing the 747 was a challenge for Condor, as the island airports it initially served, such as Mallorca or Canary Islands, were even less prepared than New York or Paris to accommodate the Jumbo. Condor itself had to acquire boarding stairs suitable for the 747, each costing the equivalent of US$65,000 today. It also needed to supply the airports with baggage pallets and containers, baggage loaders, and trailers—in total, an investment in ground equipment equivalent to US$2.4 million today, a big expenditure for a holiday airline.

While runway capacity was not problematic, as the 747 could deal with the existing space, the airport terminal infrastructure was inadequate, especially due to the then-existing mandatory customs controls. Luckily, this was not the case on the Canary Islands, where the luggage was transferred straight from the aircraft to the hotels. At other airports, Condor supported the introduction of the then-new Red and Green channels to save the need for each individual bag to be shown to customs officials.

To smooth the introduction of the Jumbo, Condor was very innovative in many other areas: to overcome small gate-holding areas, boarding started very early, and passengers were allowed to use the extra time wandering through the cabin, which they appreciated. The seat covers had four distinct colors, matching those of the respective boarding passes, to visually guide passengers to their seats. To streamline handling, some tour operators even distributed boarding passes in the hotels.

To avoid equipment and loading bottlenecks on the islands, the catering for the return flights was loaded in Germany. Especially ingenious was the solution to another problem: in the early 1970s, there were still mandatory passport controls on flights within Europe. So, Condor cooperated with the Spanish border authorities and put their inspectors on board to carry out passport checks during the flights.

All these new customized procedures, implemented with German precision, ensured a smooth introduction of the Jumbo age to mass tourism.

During the 1971/72 winter, Condor started to expand beyond its initial 747 routes to Mallorca, Gran Canaria, and Istanbul (IST) (Airways, May 2015), the latter of which transported migrant workers and their families.

The first long-haul route was Frankfurt-Karachi-New Delhi-Bangkok-Colombo-Frankfurt, the last leg being the longest nonstop flight within the Lufthansa group at the time. For the first time on a holiday flight, passengers could enjoy inflight entertainment. Pneumatic headsets provided five stereo audio music channels.

On flights over five hours, 16mm projectors showed films, but the heavy reels were so difficult to handle that aircraft mechanics had to be on the flight and double as film projectionists. Even so, the movies could not be seen from all seats.

Condor was innovative with cabin activities, offering wine tastings in the air and more fashion shows. It even installed a temporary coiffeur station in the upper deck, where a Frankfurt airport hairstylist created a specific hairdo named ‘local turbulence’, somewhat resembling what later became the iconic hairstyle of Britain’s Princess Diana.

However, all these distractions could not hide the fact that the so-called cattle class ruled on board. Passenger complaints about the cramped conditions found on the 747 became commonplace. “Condor has only enabled flying for many people due to its low prices,” Ritter said. “They had only known flying from seeing it in the movies before, where, of course, pure luxury dominates on board, so they just had the wrong expectations.”

Transatlantic flights for under 600 German marks (about US$188 then and $1,073 today) were unbelievably cheap for 1972, as they could cost up to three times as much on scheduled carriers.

And 1972 was the year Condor took to the Atlantic again, using traffic rights to the US it hadn’t used since 1967. New York’s JFK was the first destination, followed by Chicago (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX), and Acapulco (ACA). Barcelona (BCN), Nice (NCE), and Nairobi (NBO) also came online.

This was, of course, only made possible by the addition of a second 747 (D-ABYH • MSN 20559 • LN 186), which was quickly dubbed Max. Oddly, despite being the same version, the second aircraft was delivered with 10 windows on each side of the upper deck, whereas the first had been one of the very few -200s built with just three windows on each side. During a longer heavy maintenance check that winter, Fritz was also retrofitted with 10 windows per side, making both Condor’s 747s appear identical.

But Max was configured differently inside, enabling it to carry even more passengers. Apparently, Boeing had not foreseen the seat density demanded by the German charter carrier as, at the time, anything above 470 seats fell beyond the aircraft’s certification. So, Condor had no choice other than to conduct an evacuation test in front of aviation authorities.

This took place on June 9, 1972, in a hangar in Frankfurt. As only the front and upper parts of the aircraft had been modified, there was an agreement to test just these areas. Still, the requirements were strict: the aircraft was to be evacuated within 90 seconds with only half the exits usable. Condor did better than that, emptying the main deck portion under test in 70 seconds and the upper deck in just 60. This made it possible to increase the certified maximum passenger number to 478 seats.

The evolution went on, with Boeing soon certifying the 747 for 482 passengers (with the 747SR devised for the Japanese domestic market) and later even to 528. Condor gained from this increase—during the 1973 oil crisis, for example, when it was able to squeeze in 494 seats without having to perform any further evacuation testing.

This again created havoc whenever both Condor Jumbos would arrive at the same time at the same place, which happened during the summer season 1972 each Saturday in Palma de Mallorca. In the onslaught of about 1,000 passengers arriving from Frankfurt and Düsseldorf simultaneously, the local authorities had to give in.

As passports had mostly already been checked during flight, the Spanish security staff just opened the fences next to the parking positions of the aircraft, letting the passengers board the hotel transfer buses without further delay. The usually obligatory customs checks were reduced to a minimum, with the luggage transferred directly from the cargo holds to the hotels.

Many passengers would wish for such efficient handling even today.

A few years after the world premiere by Condor and after other charter carriers like LTU (with their extensive L1011 fleet) had acquired wide-bodies, the novelty factor of the Condor 747s had worn off. So, Condor decided to order three McDonnell Douglas DC-10s instead, and sell the pioneering 747s. This happened in early 1979. Condor found a buyer in Korean Air (KE) so quickly that it had to lease an interim aircraft from Lufthansa to bridge the gap until the delivery of its first trijet.

After leaving the German holiday airline, Max ran out of luck: it became HL7442 with Korean Air and made worldwide headlines for the wrong reasons on September 1, 1983.

Max operated flight KAL007, a service from Anchorage to Seoul that veered into Soviet airspace due to navigational errors and was shot down by the Soviet Air Force over the island of Sakhalin. All 269 on board were killed.

Meanwhile, the former Fritz soldiered on with Korean Air as HL7447 until 1980, having been subleased in the meantime to Saudi Arabian Airlines (SV) in 1979 and to Nigeria Airways (WT) in 1980, before being turned over to leasing company GATX, which deployed it with Canadian carrier Nationair (NX) in 1992 as C-FNXA, before returning to GATX in 1993.

Before the aircraft was scrapped in 1996 in Shelton, Washington, it secured the principal role in the NBC miniseries Pandora’s Clock, wearing the colors of fictitious Quantum Air.

At least both Jumbos enjoyed anything but an average life for an aircraft.

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About Author

Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth

Based in Hamburg, Germany, lifelong passenger aviation geek, aviation journalist, book author, TV expert and avid traveler to over 100 countries and counting.

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