By the late 1980s it was already a two-horse race for airlines looking for new aircraft that could offer efficient widebody medium capacity aircraft. McDonnell Douglas could only offer its rather long in the tooth DC-10 trijet, which ended production in 1988 and whose successor the MD-11 was aimed at the larger end of the market. McDonnell Douglas had never been able to create the DC-10 twinjet and so the middle of the market was filled only by Boeing (with its 757 and 767) and Airbus (with its A300-600 and A310).
For the Eastern Bloc flag carriers it would be between these two families that they would have the choice when considering modernising their fleets of Ilyushin IL-62s or expanding international networks. None of them had either the finances or passenger numbers to support the acquisition of larger widebodies like the MD-11 or A330/A340.
The flag carriers of Bulgaria (Balkan Bulgarian), Czechoslovakia (CSA), East Germany (Interflug), Hungary (Malev), Poland (LOT) and Romania (Tarom) were all senior and professional airlines but had been encumbered with the soviet style system of operation since the end of the Second World war.
Poland had been at the forefront of the anti-Soviet agitation with the Solidarity trade unionist movement creating waves as early as 1980. It was not surprising in light of this that LOT Polish Airlines was also at the forefront of the movement towards Westernisation. The carrier already had a mature long-haul network including services to Chicago and New York from Warsaw (restarted in January 1985 after a two-year pause caused by political turmoil). Services were also begun to New Delhi and Beijing and in 1986 charter flights were operated to Chicago and Los Angeles.
Operating these flights were the latest Soviet equipment, the Ilyushin IL-62M of which LOT had 7 (a couple of extra aircraft were leased from Aeroflot at times also). The 186-seater IL-62Ms were quite new with deliveries commencing in 1979 and continuing at a leisurely pace until 1984. Despite this they were hopelessly outdated compared with Western types from even the early 1970s and probably on par economically with late model 707s. One aircraft was lost in Poland’s worst air disaster on May 9, 1987 (see LOT flight 5055 for details) and the aircraft was actually replaced with a new build 1987 IL-62M (SP-LBH) but the crash hardly endeared the Poles to the type.
In fact, the crash was almost a copy of a 1980 crash of one of LOT’s earlier IL-62 non-M variants. At that time the Soviets had refused to believe the crash report findings and once again the Soviets refused to accept the crash findings of the later incident. Eventually after pressure and threats against Polish authorities failed the Soviets were forced to accept responsibility. Even had the IL-62 been at all competitive this chain of events could hardly have led to LOT being happy with the equipment or trusting the source of it.
LOT was clearly interested in acquiring Western equipment. In 1986 the carrier appointed Jerzy Slowinski as director, the first non-political appointee, and he reoriented the airline away from its focus on government transport targets and towards a more commercial operation. LOT ran a competition comparing the 767, A310 and DC-10 and in November 1988 they made their decision in favour of the Boeing product.
The deal was possible due to the thawing of East-West relations but even so the agreement contained restrictions on the maintenance of some electrical systems and engine parts. It wasn’t quite first blood to Boeing however as Interflug had previously ordered A310s, but it would be the 767s that would be delivered first.
The first new 208 seat 767-25DER joined the fleet on April 21, 1989 and was followed on May 19 by the second. The third 767 on order was a larger 249 seat 767-35DER and arrived on August 21, 1990. The 767s also introduced a new novelty for Polish passengers – business class. The 767s proved to offer a near 50% saving in fuel costs compared to the Ilyushins.
It’s a little unclear when LOT retired its last IL-62M, although the bulk of the fleet appears to have been sold to Air Ukraine in 1992. However at least 7 IL-62s were still present at the Warsaw maintenance base in June 1996. LOT supplemented its own long-haul operations by leasing an Air New Zealand 767-204 from May 1992 until November 1994 as well as a pair of Malaysia Airlines DC-10s in 1994/95. The carrier’s fourth owned 767 was acquired new in May 1995 and a fifth joined in May 1997.
Further 767s were acquired second-hand into the 2000s and the 767 proved itself in service. For example in May 1995 one of the engines on the 767-200s surpassed 26,000 hours in service without a visit to the maintenance shop – a testament to the reliability of the Boeing jet and its engines. LOT has survived the post-Soviet era better than most of the Eastern Bloc flag carriers and its 767s soldiered on until late 2013 when they were replaced by new 787 Dreamliners.
Jouzaitis, C. 1988, November. Polish Airline Orders First Non-Soviet jets. Chicago Tribune
Filipcyzk, J. Flying the Flag: European Commercial Air Transport since 1945 – LOT: Connecting East and West in Poland
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: