In the modern age of the EU where any airline can start almost any route from any location within the Eurozone, and huge LCCs have done just that, it is easy to forget that until relatively recently the European market was a closed shop where restrictions all but snuffed out starting scheduled services and the best way to grow was via the blossoming IT charter market, itself now another casualty of the internet driven LCCs.
Although the UK and Germany were by far the greatest charter markets other smaller European nations typically had one or more major charter airlines also. Although many of these came and went quite regularly, as charter airlines were uniquely susceptible to rapid changes in traffic volumes caused by uncertain economic periods and high competition, some names were successful for many years. TEA was one of these established charter airlines having started operations in June 1971.
The success of TEA is all the more startling given its humble routes. The airline’s origins are down to one man - Georges Gutelman. At the start of the 1960s he was a student studying metallurgy at the University of Liege. Gutelman booked a ‘cheap’ transatlantic flight across the Atlantic to the USA with Saturn Airways (a US supplemental airline) but this was cancelled at the last minute. Frustrated, but not cowed, Gutelman organised his own charter by leasing a DC-6 and convincing 69 other people to pay 10,000 Belgian Francs. The flight was a success, so much so that Gutelman repeated it annually until the end of his studies in 1963.
That year Gutelman set up his own travel company (named TIFA) using his own capital and that from some friends. Initially its operations were based around leasing capacity on US bound flights and by 1970 TIFA had operated 200 such flights. It was on November 6, 1970 that Gutelman would turn to starting his own airline – confidently to be known as Trans European Airways (TEA). Boeing was willing to take a chance on TEA and Gutelman was able to organize the lease of a ten-year-old Boeing 720-025 formerly with Eastern Air Lines. This aircraft became OO-TEA and took off for the first revenue flight on June 1, 1971.
The initial schedule was made up of charters to the Mediterranean in the summer and Hadj flights to Mecca in the winter. In August 1972 a second 720 was acquired, this time through Aer Lingus, with whom it has served since 1961 and been sent out on lease to Pakistan, the USA and Trinidad.
TEA’s success continued and the airline was able to acquire a trio of ex-TWA 707-131s from Israeli sources (IAI and the government) between May 1973 and January 1974. Two of the aircraft had been destined for the French movie star Alain Delon, who had been planning to start his own airline flying for Club-Med but never acquired the license.
Gutelman was of Jewish descent (his mother had been killed at Auschwitz and he and his brother looked after by Christian families during the war) so he had close links with Israel. The aircraft were maintained at the facilities of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and TEA aircraft were utilized by the Israeli state for a variety of clandestine operations, such as transporting weapons. This was an interesting juxtaposition considering TEA’s dealings with Arab states on Hadj duties.
The 720s and 707-120s had been good aircraft for the start-up to use at the dawn of the 1970s but the oil crisis of the early-mid 70s made them rather unattractive due to their turbojet engines. Gutelman looked for new more fuel-efficient equipment and lucked out in finding a rather desperate Airbus who were struggling to sell their new A300 aircraft. He cannily did a deal with them for the second production aircraft and OO-TEF was delivered on November 25, 1974.
Not only did this make TEA the second airline to operate the A300 (and therefore any Airbus aircraft) but it also became the only operator of the initial A300B1 version, which was 3 metres shorter than the later A300B2. The aircraft was christened ‘Aline’ after Gutelman’s wife. A second aircraft was added in July 1975 as OO-TEG but this was an A300B4.
Despite this growth the continuing oil crisis had an impact and several aircraft were leased out during the late 70s and even sold. The 720s and 707s were no great loss but the newest A300 also succumbed being first leased (in April 1977) and then sold to Egyptair (in July 1979). A single fuel-efficient Boeing 737-200 was acquired direct from Boeing in June 1976 but it was not until 1979 that the 737 fleet began to grow further courtesy of a deal with the Belgian tour operator Sunsnacks. Aircraft were often leased out during winter months to the USA, Caribbean and Canada or within Israel and Africa. TEA was ambitious but an application for long-haul routes was denied in 1979 due to policies that protected SABENA.
Despite the 707 fleet having dwindled to just a single 707-131 by 1983 a single 707-328B was acquired in May 1984 and a further 707-321C leased in December. These aircraft had a part to play in another escapade for Israel as TEA undertook Operation Moses secretly transporting Sudanese Jews from Sudan to Israel via Belgium. The first 35 flights successfully evacuated 7,000 but when the news got out the last 15 were cancelled. TEA’s role was clear to see and the airline lost its business operating Hadj flights. More personally for Gutelman he and his family received death threats. Learn more of this story here:
TEA changed direction in the mid-80s and began to expand aggressively into other sectors. New subsidiaries included:
TEA also dabbled in Turkey and acquired a 49% share in the start-up TUR European, which began operations with a single TEA 737-200 between Antalya and Europe. By November 1988 TEA's shares had been sold to the other major shareholder, the Kavala Group, and TUR remained in operation until 1994.
TEA also expanded its European airline operations with an audacious attempt to create a Pan-European carrier (much like Air Europe also tried). As well as adding more 737-200s an order was placed for 17 new 737-300s with Boeing, deliveries starting in 1988. The livery was overhauled with a new EU flag branding applied, which could work across Europe.
Between 1989 and 1991 four new subsidiaries were setup as follows (dates are first flights):
TEA UK was formed using the operating certificate and assets of Mediterranean Express, a short lived British charter airline that used BAC One-Elevens for a single season.
These airlines acquired small numbers of the 737-300 order and were tasked with operating with domestic travel brands from their country. There were also plans for a Danish operation. On June 10, 1990 the parent company also finally got its wish and began scheduled services, to London Gatwick. Things were looking rosy but swiftly the tide turned against the airline as it was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Unfortunately, much like Air Europe, TEA’s timing was not fortuitous. Its rapid growth was not immediately cash positive and the onset of the Gulf war caused a huge loss in leisure traffic and an economic recession. It was the parent airline that failed first entering into bankruptcy on October 16, 1991. It dragged down the non-airline aspects of the operation (today the TEAMCO hangars are used by Lufthansa Technik).
Of the other airlines they would all survive but for varying amounts of time. TEA UK only made it another 3 months being unable to compete against larger charter airlines in the competitive UK market. It had operated 7 737s at various times, usually leased in from the parent. TEA Italy did better and survived until 1995.
TEA France also made it into 1995, partly by aligning with the French airline EAS. The airline even acquired a pair of A310-300s in December 1990 and March 1991, although both had been returned by February 1992. These were probably part of an existing optimistic TEA order for 10 A310s. Of its 5 737-300s only two were operated beyond 1992.
The most successful of the TEA offspring by far was TEA Basel (subsequently renamed TEA Switzerland), which took up the familiar Swiss red and white colours. Its fleet of 737-300s were supplemented by a single 737-700 in 1998. By then EasyJet had taken a 40% share in the airline, which began franchise services on April 1, 1999 as easyjet Switzerland. The airline is still a subsidiary of Easyjet with some independence and 27 aircraft using its TOPSWISS callsign. In many ways Easyjet was able to become the airline that TEA aspired too.
Georges Gutelman would stay in the airline business after the demise of TEA and launched the long-haul airline CityBird in 1996 using the slogan ‘The Flying Dream’ This airline itself would also be overtaken by World events (in this case September 11). TEA was one of a select group of pioneer airlines in Europe that helped to reshape the system but were unable to take advantage of the benefits, which would flow on to the crop of real LCCs produced in the late 90s. It certainly deserves to be remembered.
2004. TEA Airlines info needed. Airliners.net
TEA Trans European Airways. SkyStef’s aviation page
2018. TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: Trans European Airlines (TEA). Airlinegeeks.com
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: