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TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: Maersk Air

With the cargo conglomerate A.P. Moller-Maersk Group already taking full advantage of shipping on land and sea in the 1960s, the carrier turned their attention to the sky. The company had previously invested in various carriers, specifically SAS and Danish Air Lines as a way to test their interest in aviation. A decision was officially made in the mid 1960s to buy out the Danish charter airline Falck Air and convert the airline to a full commercial operation. The new Falck Air officially became Maersk Air on February 21, 1969.

Maersk Air started with the former Falck Air fleet of de Havilland Herons and started flying between Copenhagen and Stauning, with the Fokker F27 replacing the Herons before the end of the year. While the ability to get off the ground was easy for Maersk, expansion was impossible thanks to flag carrier SAS having the say in who can and cannot start flights out of Copenhagen. To dodge this issue, Maersk started flying out of Billund while also moving closer to establishing charter aircraft for tour groups instead of a commercial airline. The company purchased five Boeing 720s and two travel agents to help expand the brand. Other charter work was done for other Maersk brands, with Maersk Shipping and Maersk Oil utilizing recently acquired Bell 212 helicopters for operations in the North and Baltic Seas.

The fleet of Fokkers saw their last actions with Maersk in the late 1970s with the carrier moving to bigger Boeing 737-200s for their few scheduled routes. However, bigger wasn’t better for the company and quickly the 737s were leased out to others carriers while the routes were downgraded from Boeing 737 to de Havilland Dash 7 aircraft. The consistent changing of routes and flow of the tour charter market left Maersk near bankruptcy by 1982. The carrier slashed its fleet and crew by nearly half and quickly found that as the recipe for success, turning a 112 million Danish kronur profit by 1985. This was mostly aided by the European nations agreeing to ease restrictions on international flying. Maersk took advantage of the ability to get new routes from Billund to London and Cologne, with Amsterdam, Brussels and Stockholm following suit with newly acquired Boeing 737-500s.

By 1993 Maersk Air had made the most of their expansion and was continually looking for new connecting points. The Danish government opened the door for both Danish carriers, Maersk Air and Cimber Sterling, to join SAS’s EuroBonus rewards program. While Cimber Sterling agreed, Maersk declined by stating that the carrier wanted to focus on making alliances outside of Denmark and also focus on the creation of its cargo branch, Star Air. SAS didn’t like hearing “no” from Maersk and overlapped Maersk’s Billund to Germany routes. Maersk fired back with the announcement of flights between Copenhagen and numerous SAS destinations.

The fight between the government backed SAS and conglomerate backed Maersk didn’t end well for the smaller carrier, with Maersk losing money on multiple international routes. The carrier attempted to make international allies by joining the oneworld alliance, however, dropped their bid in hopes of joining SAS’s EuroBonus program. The Danish government didn’t help Maersk either, implementing an airline tax on tickets and encouraging travelers to skip flying and drive the new Great Belt Fixed Link bridge system. SAS and Maersk agreed to allow for the desperate carrier to join the EuroBonus program, but under certain illegal conditions, including suspending directly competed routes with SAS and cut ties with all other non-SAS alliance carriers. However, the carriers were busted for these illegal acts of price fixing and were imposed fines, with Maersk taking a fine of €17.5 million and SAS taking an even heavier fine of €43.75 million.

Labor disputes in the last two years of the 20th century were almost the nail in the coffin for Maersk Air and by 2002 the carrier was looking for a buyer. The airline was working with a new group of managers following the firing of those who took part in the SAS-Maersk deal in the 1990s and quick hiring and promotions left the new management very inexperienced. Maersk’s last-ditch effort came in 2003 with the idea of being a low cost carrier for leisure destinations. Flights would rapidly arrive together and leave together to assure passengers that they would get to their destination quickly. But two more years and no green on the earnings reports left the owners desperately looking for a buyer. Eventually Sterling Airlines came forward and on June 30, 2005, announced that they would buy Maersk Air. Neither side named a price for the mangled carrier but only made public the fact that Maersk’s small fleet of corporate jets and cargo airline Star Air would remain in A.P. Moller-Maersk Group’s control. Maersk’s final flight was in September 2005, with the fleet of Boeing 737s transferring to Sterling Airlines.

Ian McMurtry
Ian McMurtry
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