By Jean Christou
FOR MANY Cypriots travelling to the UK with Cyprus Airways over the past 40 years, the names Heathrow and London became synonymous as islanders would fly off to shop or visit relatives on the flag carrier.
Although there were direct Nicosia-Heathrow flights from 1952, they were operated by British European Airways (BEA), one of the original 1947 stakeholders in Cyprus Airways, along with private investors.
When Cyprus gained independence in 1960, BEA’s stake was reduced, the government gained majority shareholding and Cypriot flight crews were recruited and trained. But it wasn’t until 1965 that CY began leasing its own aircraft and the moufflon logo was born.
After 1974, it took another year for CY – all of its five aircraft were caught on the tarmac during the Turkish invasion – to resume its Heathrow flights, leading eventually to the boom years of the nineties and a good part of the noughties.
Then, the national carrier was the proud owner of three slots at a destination that was last year voted one of the world’s top ten most prestigious airports.
CY had for the most part a good reputation and was well thought of abroad and at home, especially if you needed to carry ten kilos of halloumi and 20 litres of olive oil to the relatives in London without paying for extra baggage.
These little endearing perks didn’t appeal so much to non-Cypriot passengers however. “I travelled BA when possible, although that was partially because it enabled me to be on an equal footing with the other passengers,” said former BBC correspondent and long-time British resident of Cyprus, Chris Drake. “With CY, the foreigner was always second class. That was because it was so much a family airline, with the on-board staff either knowing the actual passengers, or having been prepped pre-flight by someone else. The Law of Relativity ruled. Not what Einstein had in mind, but the Cypriot version.”
Drake said that at the London end, the most important part of air travel was to know the CY station manager. “He was key to the travel plans of the Cypriot rich and famous, the famous expecting his presence upon arrival or departure, and the rich demanding it,” he said.
According to Drake, this was the man who ironed out any problems, waved through that extra 30 kilos of baggage, changed and upgraded seats, and generally ruled Heathrow. “Just to be seen in his presence was a major plus,” he said. “I didn’t get to meet him, but watched with fascination as he tried to survive each flight – always imagining that as the flight finally took off, he would be heading for that well-earned bottle of Cypriot brandy.”
Of course those ‘gravy train’ days ended some time ago with stricter security and more competition forcing Cyprus Airways to generate extra cash where it could and to cut back on its London staff to save on costs.
Now with the last of the three Heathrow slots having been sold off to American Airlines for $31 million, it really is the end of an era, and according to industry experts in Cyprus and the UK, the end of CY’s prestige as an international airline.
“It means Cyprus Airways has really relinquished its position as Cyprus’ flag carrier,” said Noel Josephides, the managing director of the London-based Sunvil Travel who had been working with CY from 1970 up until two years ago when it became easier for tour operators to work with airlines like easyJet and Monarch when they began flights to Cyprus.
“Cyprus Airways has downgraded itself to flying from Stansted, which is a low-cost airport and now it will have to compete with the likes of Ryanair. Stansted is fine. It just doesn’t have the same status. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Once you leave Heathrow you don’t have the same image and the clientele is very different.”
But the airline’s withdrawal from the UK began long before that. “Cyprus Airways had business class and club class. It was a cut above and I used to fly all the time, and as Sunvil, we never considered anyone else. There was a certain pride in having a national airline flying from Heathrow,” said Josephides.
But he said the airline never moved with the times. It was grossly overstaffed, especially in London. He put the ‘golden age’ of Heathrow flights in the nineties but once the low-cost carriers entered the market, everything changed. Josephides said CY missed the boat.
The Heathrow route did not only mean good times for CY passengers but also for the airline’s crew.
Former head of the airline’s CYNIKA union Andreas Pierides, who retired last year after being with the company for just over 40 years said the Heathrow route was always one of the most popular for staff who used to enjoy a three-day layover in London.
“It was one of the best destinations for cabin crew and they stayed in a nice hotel,” he said. But he said as part of the cost-cutting drive the flight times were changed last year so that a turnaround is now possible and staff no longer get to stay over.
Panicos Nicolaides, a former CY cargo and catering manager who spent 26 years with the airline, said Heathrow was a favourite with Cypriots and CY crew because “it was near the shopping” but he was more fired up about what the airline used to offer passengers to eat in the old days.
“We had fantastic food,” said Nicolaides, real grilled steaks and “proper” bacon and eggs. “The breakfasts from Heathrow were memorable in business class,” he said. “Now all airlines are just looking for the cheapest food they can buy.”
He said CY used to win at least one or two catering awards each year. “We had excellent chefs and we made sure we offered the best but to give the best you have to pay for it,” he said, bringing the issue right back to cost cutting and letting slip his disdain for the airline history of spoiling its staff.
He said pilots in particular, who have been most vocal against the sale of the last Heathrow slot, should acknowledge that they have more than their fair share of the blame for CY being forced to sell.
According to Orestis Rossides, the Cyprus Tourism Organisaton’s man in London who has been there for decades, the airline is still operating on a high cost structure. “The ratio of personnel to aircraft is quite high,” he said.
Rossides said CY always had a good reputation in the UK. “All international airlines use Heathrow,” he said. “It was prestigious for Cyprus to be there, and it was close to where most Cypriots in the UK live. I suppose the peak period was when they flew the A330 which had a good business class, which is a preference for a lot of Heathrow users.”
So what of the future, with the much less prestigious Stansted the only game in town for CY?
“Stansted is not much further and in fact it’s a much nicer place to fly from. It’s not congested.” said Rossides. He said the cost of using Heathrow was very high for any airline. But one of the other costs CY might pay for the switch, he said, would be a change in the type of passenger using the airline from the UK.
“Heathrow would be the first choice for those flying from London. You could say it caters for the most discerning traveller so I think the type of passenger using Cyprus Airways will change and it will lose the loyalty factor,” said Rossides. He also said starting flights from Stansted as of September 14, as tourism starts entering the winter season might not be very profitable.
“Good luck to them. It’s going to be a challenge,” he said.
Pierides said switching to Stansted was not going to be the end of the world for the airline or its passengers. “To be honest my personal opinion is that Heathrow is just all about the prestige. It’s nothing else. The charges were very high and the airline got a good price for the slot and with their financial problems it gives them a chance to go on and makes it possible to survive,” he said.
Nicolaides and Josephides did not agree entirely. “Passengers, as opposed to tourists, prefer Heathrow. It’s more accessible,” Nicolaides said.
“Losing Heathrow removes Cyprus Airways from the international scene but that’s how the cookie crumbles,” the former catering manager said.
“Small countries will find it increasingly impossible to keep a national airline. When you get weak, the competition comes out to kill you,” he added.
Josephides was even less optimistic when it came to the near future because he said the series of negative comments about CY constantly coming out of the government were damaging. “Would you use an airline when government ministers are running it down on a daily basis?” he said.
“Will it manage to get Stansted come October? No one is sure any more.”