TAP – Portugal in the air

on Mar 1, 2015 in Now Boarding | No Comments

It’s a story full of exceptional deeds, in which the flagship company carried the Portuguese identity to the whole world. This month sees the celebration of its 70th anniversary.


1945-1946 – FOUNDATION

TAP is probably the only airline company in the world whose founder was a symbol of freedom. For the Portuguese people, Humberto Delgado, is the man who openly defied the dictator, Salazar. As candidate for President of the Republic, the charismatic ‘Fearless General’ was given the people’s vote via massive demonstrations throughout the country, but was a victim of electoral fraud. He continued his battle in exile, until he was assassinated by the regime’s military police, PIDE, 50 years ago, on 13th February, 1965.

Such important facts have often made people forget that in 1945 he founded ‘Transportes Aéreos Portugueses’ (TAP), which is celebrating its 70th anniversary and whose “birth certificate” was signed by then Lieutenant Colonel on 14th March of that year. In record time, Humberto Delgado and his team achieved the long-held ambition of linking Lisbon, Luanda and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) by plane. In keeping with the spirit of the times, he named the company the Linha Aérea Imperial. However, most of all, Humberto Delgado made enthusiasm and competence part of TAP’s DNA, as if imitating the Portuguese maritime voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries, but this time by air.

In November, 1944, the world was at war. Via the Chicago Conference, which dictated the rules for international civil aviation, the allied nations boldly anticipated a new era for the planet. It was time for airlines to take advantage of the conquests made by military aviation, which had boosted the rate of technical progress remarkably. Portugal, which had been neutral during the war, had to make up for lost time – and Humberto Delgado was the man for the job.

Believing the first TAP pilots to be a symbol, they had to be Portuguese. So, he decided to recruit them from the military, which was the opposite of what other countries at war had done, who had opted to use many airline pilots to fight in the Second World War. As a staunch anglophile, Humberto Delgado believed that England’s help (Portugal’s oldest ally), despite being exhausted by the war, was crucial to his goals: the first TAP pilots were trained at the British Overseas Airways School and were dubbed as the ‘England Eleven’.

Meanwhile, in order to expand the company’s fleet, Humberto Delgado travelled to the United States of America on 14th May, 1945 – only six days after ‘V-Day’, the day of the Allies victory in Europe. It was there he acquired three war surplus Douglas C-53s, which were converted into Dakota DC-3 commercial airplanes. This legendary and robust 20th-century bi-motor also played a role in the founding of Portuguese airlines. In the words of one of the first generation pilots, “the Dakota is part of us”. It was an aeroplane with military features, like the bench seats used for parachutists, that TAP used for its experimental (and cost-free) inauguration flight from Lisbon to Porto, in the summer of 1945. This modest beginning contrasted starkly with the litmus test that was the near-23,000 kilometre flight to the distant colony of Mozambique, at an average speed of 270 kmh.

At the time, any aeronautics specialist would have said that such a venture, attempted by a nascent airline, would take various years of experimental flights, especially since using the Dakota meant making several stopovers traversing the continent. Among Humberto Delgado’s team, there were those who staunchly defended the route over the Sahara desert, as it was the shortest. The director, however, had the last word. He decided on the route along the coast and, after just three experimental flights in 1946, the definitive route was decided on. The first stopover was in Casablanca, followed by Vila Cisneros, Bathurst, Robertsfield, Accra, Libreville, Luanda, Leopoldville, Elizabethville and Salisbury, arriving in Lourenço Marques after four days. With Manuel Maria da Rocha as flight commander, the Linha Aérea Imperial made its ambitious inaugural flight on 31st December, 1946, and forever raised the bar for TAP.

The company is proud to have the genes of the Fearless General in its DNA.

by Frederico Delgado Rosa (biographer and grandson of Humberto Delgado)



When we consider the size of TAP in the early days, the Linha Imperial seems even more remote than its destinations in South-West Africa, 23 thousand kilometres away. In 1947, two years after the company was set up, the routes were covered by only five planes, far fewer than those used in other companies. Iberia had 25, KLM 82, while TWA, Pan American, Air France and BOAC (British Airways’ predecessor) had over a hundred each. But size isn’t everything. In the very same year, the Transportes Aéreos Portugueses became full members of IATA (International Air Transport Association). The company was already showing clear signs of the safety for which it became known. The internal discipline, in part a legacy of the military culture, was reflected in its rigorous procedures. In Africa, much of the topographic surveying around the runways, on the route that connected Portugal to Mozambique, was done by Portuguese crews. The skills of the Portuguese pilots soon earned them a good reputation and it’s interesting to recall the special authorisation granted by London airport.  Statistics showed that TAP was the operator with the highest percentage of successful landings and take-offs in bad weather. In recognition of this, its planes were authorised to land and take off even if the airport were closed due to poor conditions.

The focus on the African continent continued throughout the 1950s, despite the growing independent movements. When the DC-4 Skymaster entered into operation in 1954, the connection between Lisbon and Luanda (Angola) was reduced to 17 hours. In the following year, flight time between Lisbon and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique) was cut down with TAP’s first four-engine, long-haul plane, the Super Constellation.

But a company’s history also lives on through many of its more peculiar memories. Until 1956, for instance, there was only only flight attendant, endearingly called Miss Lopes. First taken on in 1946, Lopes da Silva had a long career compared to many colleagues, who were legally obliged to leave when they decided to get married. But this wasn’t the only hardship: it was a very demanding and stressful profession considering the poor flight conditions and few benefits.

In 1961, an episode occurred that lives on in aviation history and could almost provide the inspiration for a novel. On the eve of elections, times were turbulent amid resistance to the ruling dictatorship. It was November when an armed group forced the Super Constellation to fly low over the statue of the Marquis of Pombal, before flying over other zones in Lisbon and the rest of the country.  Once the cabin had been depressurised, pamphlets were thrown from the cockpit’s open windows to incite the population to unite against the regime. The flight, which had departed from Casablanca, ended up returning to Morocco, this time to Tangier, where the group of five led by Hermínio da Palma Inácio left unscathed. The captain feared the plane might be sabotaged, but Palma Inácio assured their commitment by arranging a dinner with the crew the following month. No-one realised what risks they’d taken before landing safely. A Portuguese Air Force fighter had left on their tail, with orders to shoot down the commercial flight. Even after his return to Portugal, the TAP captain, José Marcelino, had a lot of explaining to do to the political police. He was subjected to four enquiries and was finally suspended for a month. He wasn’t supposed to have been on that flight and the only reason he could give for his change in plans is personal: a belly dance show he particularly wanted to see. He ends up being suspended and removed from duty for a month, but never reveals that he was in love with one of the flight attendants, whom he’d eventually marry.

This was the same year of the inaugural flight to Goa (now India), which took over 19 hours and included five stopovers. It wasn’t the best time to start, because in December of the same year, the territory was invaded by the Indian Union and Portugal lost its sovereignty.


Now for the jet

The company continued to grow, mainly thanks to the leadership of Vaz Pinto, a chairman who marked TAP’s history between 1959 and 1966. The airline finally enters the jet era when it receives three Caravelle VI-R in July 1962. Such an inspiring name in a country whose history is marked by the Discoveries really begged to be changed. The manufacturer gave permission for them to be called Caravelas. They were always full, in detriment to other companies, because passengers preferred the jet and because TAP was the only airline that offered wine with meals in tourist class, while it had to be paid for with other companies. It seemed to have the gift of ubiquity. It did Paris, London and Madrid and inaugurated connections to Zurich, Geneva, Frankfurt, Munich and then Brussels, Amsterdam and later Copenhagen. All with three Caravelas. An Iberian pilot even asked a TAP colleague how many planes they had in total, because wherever he flew he’d see a plane with the Portuguese colours.

But other destinations had to be found. It was 1966 when a Boeing 707 landed for the first time at Galeão Airport in Rio de Janeiro, on 17 June at 17.32 GMT. Precisely at the same time and on the same day as the hydroplane Santa Cruz moored in Guanabara Bay in 1922, when Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho made their historic South Atlantic crossing. The route to Brazil was inaugurated.

Boeing had arrived in late 1965, not without the American manufacturer having first understood the specific nature of TAP. At the Portuguese airline, the co-pilot was seen as the captain’s substitute, undergoing almost identical training. This meant fitting the co-pilot panel with the same instruments arranged in the same way, very different to the American concept. A special service was created to prepare for the arrival of new planes to ensure that procedures would be finely tuned and the staff suitably prepared. This work earned the recognition of the American company, and when Air France later became its customer, it recommended that it should study TAP’s procedures. In fact, the French company’s adaptation was done from a manual written by TAP’s technical services, for which they were highly praised.

From 1967, it became the first European airline to fly exclusively with jets, after having reached a mythical number three years earlier of one million passengers. And then, as the 1970s began, another important evolution occurred. It became self-sufficient in fleet maintenance and a training centre was set up (“the TAP university”), boasting the most cutting-edge equipment in all sectors, including flight simulators and a computer centre.

But in 1973 the first oil crisis shook the world economy, with galloping inflation rates and high commercial deficits. Even so, it can’t be said that TAP was in bad shape at the time of the 25th April Revolution in 1974. It had 32 planes flying to over 40 destinations on four continents, and was starting up the computerised reservation service: Tapmatic.

Troubled times followed. Successive strikes and the initiation of a military regime escalated to a situation of almost complete paralysis in 1975, with the state administration being sequestered for a week. The company ended up being nationalised on 15h April that year.

It was also the time of one of the biggest rescue operations undertaken by plane: the airlift between the capital and the ex-colonies on the road to independence. Crews worked 26 consecutive hours to connect Angola and Mozambique to Portugal. When the conflicts broke out, escape became even more pressing, as chaos and destruction approached the runways. These were times of great tension, often just to get the doors closed. The Boeing 747s, those giants of the air known as Jumbos, played a fundamental role in getting people out.  Between July and August, around 700 people reached Lisbon every day, and on 11th September alone, 1500 disembarked. Space was used to the full, with planes taking off at maximum load.

In the meantime, the company, which had withstood the attempts to close it in 1974 and 1975, suffered the same threat in 1977, as a result of the political turmoil. This was also the year the company’s most tragic event occurred. In November, there was an accident, the only one in the company’s history involving passengers. A Boeing 727 crashed as it was trying to land on the island of Madeira in stormy weather.

Before this decade was over, the company underwent a modernisation programme, which led to the change in name to TAP Air Portugal. However, the biggest upset came in 1980, when the airline’s economic position was declared so precarious that the administrative ruling pronouncing its closure was actually drawn up. But in the same year, TAP and the Government signed the Economic and Financial Recovery Agreement, which clarified relations with public power and set out the fleet’s modernisation project. The following year, executive class was created and the on-board magazine Atlantis began.


Oil bills

By this time, TAP employs ten thousand people, but aviation is going through a great crisis. In 1981 alone, airlines register losses of almost two billion dollars. Costs increase dramatically, especially for fuel. A year earlier, Iraq had attacked oil facilities in Iran, triggering off a war that would last eight years. Problems follow one after the other. More expensive fuel leads to a rise in ticket prices, warding off potential passengers. At the same time, there’s excess plane capacity and a new competitor comes into play: charter airlines.

The company struggles on and, in 1983, TAP wins the international bid for large-scale reviews of 35 Boeing 727 from Federal Express. In the same year, it puts 21 planes up for sale as they are unsuitable for its needs, but are all classified as “good used” given their careful use and recognised maintenance care.

Towards the end of the decade, in 1988, it becomes the first airline to establish land-air connections via satellite. The following year, the first Airbus arrives, the A310-300, heralding the change to more economical and versatile planes that will determine air connections in the 1990s. It’s not long before the entire TAP fleet is Airbus. The first “blue flights”, on which smoking is banned, also date back to this time: a memory that seems so hard to believe nowadays.

While this is going on, the airline crisis intensifies as the effects of the general economic recession are felt, caused mainly by the consequences of the Gulf War. And in 1994, the financial problems lead to the creation of the Strategic and Economic-Financial Recovery Plan and to the TAP 2000 modernisation project, aimed at dividing the company into three business units (air transport, handling and maintenance).

Amid this climate of recession, a strategic alliance is formed with Swissair in 1997. Within the scope of this agreement, a team of professional managers arrive at TAP, led by the Brazilian Fernando Pinto, whose appointment contrasts with the previous political choices for the company’s presidency. Due to financial difficulties, the Swiss company ends up not buying 34% of TAP, which leads to unexpected costs in 2000. Yet the Portuguese company still has some cards up its sleeve.

Even before the new administration arrives, a report commissioned from a British entity points out some rather unattractive data, such as the debt, strong government interference and the power of the unions.  But it also mentions a level of maintenance that is respected throughout the world, flight operations with exceptional safety criteria and a good level of service. The truth is that the administration team proves to be long-lasting, and is still in office today, surviving nine ministers and events of a dimension as yet unknown.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 in the USA took the world to the verge of economic collapse and opened up an unprecedented crisis in aviation. According to IATA estimates, in the two subsequent years, airlines lost the equivalent of all the profit made since 1945. In 2001 and 2002 alone, losses totalled almost 30 billion dollars. Great investment in security, together with insurance and fuel costs led many companies to imminent collapse.


Profitable times

In 2003, strategic changes took place and the TAP Group was formed: we’re now in the decade of recovery. For the first time in several years, the company registers a profit. The year ends with a profit of 19.7 million euros, a remarkable result considering the 122 million euro loss in 2000.  The good news continues with Airbus distinguishing the company with two awards: biggest world use of the A310 and operational excellence of the fleet between 2001 and 2003.

The following year, it enters the top 10 biggest national companies and is the fifth largest employer in the country. Nevertheless, the war in Iraq intensifies a sombre scenario, with the price of oil rising above the psychological barrier of 50 dollars a barrel in September. Bankruptcies follow, with fares going down and low-cost companies conquering the market. The airlines are forced to focus on global alliances, with TAP joining the Star Alliance in March 2005.

But this is an important year in the company’s history for other reasons. The TAP image as we know it today is introduced on 1 February 2005. In the year in which the company celebrates its 60th anniversary, the planes are given a new livery and a new logo, followed by a change in uniforms. TAP asserts its modern image as it continues to expand, particularly to Brazil. It is among the largest exporting companies, including wines, strengthening national identity in the smallest details, from the audio channels available on board, to the Vista Alegre crockery.

The purchase of Portugália, finalised in July 2008, is a very important step in growth at a time when there are undeniable signs of expansion as the number of destinations in Africa, and particularly Brazil, continue to increase. Lisbon functions as a passenger distribution platform, the famous hub between Europe and other continents. But despite its successful air operation, the company faces serious cash flow problems, leading to the decision to privatise, which ends up failing in 2012.

If it finally goes ahead this year, as the Government plans, it won’t be the first time that TAP has been privatised. Seventy years is plenty of time for lots of ups and downs. After starting out as a state-owned company, the first change came in 1953 when it became a public limited company.  A year after the 25th April Revolution, it was nationalised before becoming a publicly-owned limited company and then, in 2003, a holding company.

by Alda Rocha


Numbers 2014

- 11,4 million passengers

- 77 planes

- 84 destinations

- 35 countries

- 11.343 TAP Group employees

- 1,6 million members of the Victoria programme

- 620.000 litres of wine served aboard

- 85 million tons of cargo and mail transported

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