Sunday, 8 November 2015

Estonian Air is dead. Long live Estonian air

I am sad to learn that Estonia's national airline, Estonian Air, has ceased operations as of today.  Evidently the European Commission has ruled that subsidies paid to the airline amount to illegal state aid and must be repaid, and as the airline is in no position to pay back the reported £85 million owed, the Estonian Government has declared that it has no alternative but to close it down.

While I have not followed their recent fortunes closely, it's an airline that has a place in my heart because they provided me with one of my more memorable flights, when I flew from Helsinki to Tallinn in 1993 on an old Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-134 just like this...

My housemate at university was a shipping enthusiast and drew my attention to the network of ferry routes that criss-crossed the Baltic Sea and North Sea, linking major Scandinavian cities.  Operated by companies such as Silja LineColor Line and Viking Line, these routes provided a very cost-effective method of travelling round the Baltic region.

Sailings were generally overnight, on ships that were luxurious, comfortable and full of really nice restaurants, bars and other amenities - not at all like the dirty, bland, run-down vessels operated by most British operators at the time.  And in a region that is otherwise known for being expensive, these ferry crossings were remarkably cheap and the cost of the journey - including the price of a cabin - was always less than we would have paid for a hotel room, with the added benefit of going to bed in one city and waking up in another.

We planned an extensive itinerary for winter 1993 that would take in as many of these routes as possible over a two week period, and one of the routes that we definitely wanted to sample was the Estline crossing from Tallinn to Stockholm.  However there was no convenient connecting sailing that would allow us to comply with our rule of only sleeping while moving, and the only way of getting off a ship in Helsinki in the morning and then travelling to Tallinn with enough time to look around before catching the ferry out in the evening, was to fly.

In those pre-internet days, booking travel was much less straightforward than now and we spent three hours in Thomas Cook in Birmingham City Centre, with a really helpful travel adviser who thought we were complete nutters but totally got into the spirit of what we were trying to do and somehow found ways of booking and ticketing every leg of our trip - all except the Estonian Air flight.

Although she tried every way she could think of, eventually it became apparent that the only way you could book an Estonian Air flight was to go to one of the airports it served, so we just had to hope that when we got to Helsinki we would be able to sort it out there or a large chunk of the itinerary would be in tatters - but as it turned out there was no problem and they were very happy to accommodate us.

The trip had many highlights.  We had chosen the time of year to travel knowing that the Baltic Sea would be pack ice above a certain latitude, and one of the finest travel experiences of my life was a day-long sailing from Stockholm to the Finnish city of Turku through the beautiful Turku Archipelago with the ship carving its way through ice for the whole journey.  This was followed by a scenic overnight train ride to Rovaniemi, just for the sake of crossing the Artic Circle, before flying back to Helsinki with Finnair.

Two days later we were off to Tallinn.  This was only two years after Estonia had gained independence from the Soviet Union and followed several years of political upheaval in Eastern Europe and we were keen to see what the city would be like.  The answer turned out to be snowy and foggy.

One of the consequences of the dissolution of the USSR and the emergence of the Baltic States was the break-up of the state airline Aeroflot.  Each of the newly formed countries wanted its own national airline and this mostly involved ex-Aeroflot Tupolevs and Iluyshins appearing in new colours.  However, Soviet aviation at the time was renowned for a certain lack of finesse (or indeed safety) and the new carriers' ambition exceeded their bank balances so there were lots of rough edges - all of which added to the charm.

This all meant that we boarded our Tu-134 at Helsinki full of anticipation.  The crew were very friendly and welcoming and clearly proud to be representing their own nation.  As we boarded we were invited to help ourselves from a huge tray full of sweets and other small snacks.

The plane itself was rudimentary to say the least.  To reach our seats we had to walk through 'Business Class' - a small section of the plane which had identical seats to the rest but had the luxury of a fixed wooden table attached to the back of the seat in front.  Not retractable, but fixed in position at abdomen-shredding height if the occupant leaned forward too quickly.

As we passed through the cabin I accidentally leaned against one of the seats, which immediately collapsed backwards and crashed into the seat behind - thankfully unoccupied.  We were also relieved to see that we did not have the row with the Escape Rope - literally a rope hanging from the luggage rack adjacent to the emergency door with a sign at the top saying Escape Rope.

We eventually taxied to the runway and our take-off roll was so long I thought we were driving to Estonia.

Once airborne, there was nothing to see.  The weather was awful - snow and dense fog.  The plane must have been one of the loudest I have ever travelled on.  The engines at the back made a noise like my washing machine on spin cycle.

We seemed to be flying forever.  Booked as a half hour flight, forty five minutes after setting off we were still screaming through the skies.  Eventually we started descending and finally we emerged from the base of the clouds to reveal a ghostly scene of white roads and grassland - only for the pilot immediately to apply full power and suddenly we were climbing again.  My first ever go-around.

Another eternity later we landed and skidded down the runway in something that didn't closely resemble a straight line.  Our route to the terminal took us along taxiways that were totally covered in snow.  If there was any snow-clearing equipment at the airport, they clearly had no intention of using it.  We parked at the terminal next to a similar aircraft that had such a thick layer of snow across all surfaces that it looked as though  it has been abandoned there years previously - although it had probably only been there an hour or two.

Our crew was clearly delighted to welcome us to their home country and we disembarked, relieved to be there in one piece but sorry to reach the end of one of the more charismatic flights I have experienced.  As we reached the bottom of the steps, I stepped on the ground and my leg disappeared into the snow up to my knee.

Tallinn itself was - as far as I can remember it - a beautiful city and the most striking thing was the helpfulness of all the people, all of whom seemed genuinely delighted to welcome strangers to their city.  I don't remember much about the buildings or the geography - a good excuse for a return visit.  We left that evening for our overnight sailing to Stockholm on MS Estonia - hardly suspecting that less than a year letter it would sink in the middle of the Baltic while performing that very crossing, with the tragic loss of 853 lives.

Estonian Air graduated from Tupolev TU-134s to more modern western equipment such as the ubiquitous Boeing 737, and was subsequently part-privatised before returning to full state

I suppose it is understandable that proud nations like Estonia want their own national airline.  However, perhaps the fate of Estonian Air suggests that such a small country can't sustain such an asset.

Not to be deterred however, the Estonian Government has formed the Nordic Aviation Group - not an airline as such, but a 'virtual' airline which sells a network but contracts in other airlines to provide the planes, crew, booking systems and so on.  With remarkable seamlessness they have begun offering an almost identical network to that hitherto provided by Estonian Air, with immediate effect.  Someone with more sinister mind than me might be inclined to think that there may be more to this than a remarkable coincidence.

Adria Airways of Slovenia appears to be doing most of the legwork although the Estonian Government seems keen for NAG to become a 'proper' airline in due course - although unless it does things somewhat differently it is hard to see why it will be any more successful than the defunct Estonian Air.

But Estonian Air for me will always bring back memories of that remarkable trip in 1993 and that charming, charismatic flight in a battered old Tupolev!


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