Exploring Greece’s abandoned airport
July 24 2019 08:02 PM
Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

An Olympic Airlines 747, once the proud flagship jet of an airline enjoyed by the likes of Hollywood actors, high-profile heads of state, and even Jackie Kennedy, glistens in the sun while sitting idle just South of Athens.

I’m at Hellinikon International Airport — an abandoned and derelict former hub airport of Athens, now a living example of ‘when time stood still’.

For six decades, the airport served as the Greek capital’s main hub for commercial airliners. It was the Greek home of the ‘golden age’ of air travel, handling around 12mn passengers per year.

The airport had two terminals: the West Terminal for Olympic Airways, and the East Terminal for all other carriers.

But following the opening of the current Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (ATH) in 2001, Hellinkon was neglected and is now caught up in years’ worth of bureaucracy and debates surrounding what the airport site should be used for. Not only are there no concrete plans for the future of the site, but in addition to this, there isn’t any company, firm, nor individual person managing the former hub airport itself — hence its dire, sad state.

Now, almost 20 years since the airports’ closure, the entire site is off-limits to the public for fears of airport buildings, or even aircraft parts collapsing.

I started off exploring bearer to the main terminal, the original signs point towards the departure building, where even luggage storage signs were still on display, showing pricing in Greek Drachma, the currency replaced by the euro in 2001.

As I walked inside the terminal, the original stickers for British Airways ‘Euro Traveller’ and ‘Club Europe’ check-in were visible. British Airways has flown a variety of aircraft to Athens, including the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar 100 which flew to Hellinikon during the late-80s. The main terminal hall was designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St Louis and Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC.

Outside, I wandered around the airside area of the tarmac and out to the aircraft parking stands.

The unique and somewhat terribly sad aspect of this abandoned airport is that several aircraft of the Olympic Airways fleet is still parked on the airport site today, rotting.

There they were. Facing the Aegean sea, an Olympic Airways Boeing 747-200, Boeing 727, and Boeing 737. With this view, I felt I was transported to a time when aviation was more about staircases to First Class, and less about tight legroom and single-aisle cabins that we have become accustomed to today.

Olympic Airways, (which became Olympic Airlines) was the Pan Am of Greece. In 1956, the Greek State signed an agreement with Onassis — a Greek business tycoon — for the exclusive use of air transport in Greece. On April 6, 1957, Olympic was born.

The airline served international routes across the globe, including the important Greece-Australia market, beginning Boeing 707 operations between Athens and Sydney twice weekly via Bangkok and Singapore.

In 1973 the death of Onassis’ son, in an aircraft accident affected Onassis and the Greek aviation industry. Onassis sold all Olympic shares to the Greek state and died in 1975. Following this period, the state of the airline worsened, and the company went on to face serious financial trouble from the 1980s, mostly due to management problems.

In an attempt to make Olympic profitable, the airline was managed as a subsidiary of British Airways. The result was even larger debts and rising losses. After a steady removal of the long-haul fleet, in early 2009 Olympic Airlines ceased operations, and while the brand lives on as ‘Olympic Air’ today (as a regional subsidiary of Aegean Airlines), the airline is no more.

Valuable aircraft parts, including the engines, were removed prior to storing these long-haul birds at Hellinikon.

In front of me on the taxiway, a bunch of inflight magazines are ready to be loaded on to an Olympic jet — a flight that left 20 years ago.

Still standing tall was the air traffic control tower — once controlling the busy flow of aircraft departing and arriving at Hellinikon.

It was a very unusual experience. To see a marvel of Greek aviation in such a dire state was sad, but at the same time, extraordinary. The stored Olympic jets was a reminder of how aviation was, but also how far we’ve come in what is a relatively young industry. When you’re next flying to Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (ATH), be sure to keep an eye out during descent for Hellinikon Airport, which can usually be seen from the left side of the aircraft, before the final approach.

*The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir

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