July 15, 2024
The History of Malev Hungarian Airlines

Like many once-proud European flag carriers, Malev Hungarian Airlines was forced to cease operations because of financial constraints-in this case, after a 66-year history.

Malev traces its origins to an earlier concern, MALERT Hungarian Air Transport Company, which was formed in 1928, but its decade of development was thwarted when its aircraft and pilots were requisitioned for World War II service. After the last shot was fired, however, and the dust settled, it virtually constituted what was left-destroyed airplanes and airfields reduced to rubble. With Russian occupation, Hungary was also stripped of its freedom.

Maszovlet Hungarian-Soviet Air Transport, its first post-war airline to sprout wings, was formed on March 29, 1946, planting roots at a Budaors Airport operational base, which had remained relatively undamaged. Provisioned with five three-passenger Polikarpov Po-2 open-cockpit biplanes and an equal number of 21-seat Lisonov Li-2s (Soviet-produced Douglas DC-3s), it commenced service to Szombathely and Debrecen on October 15, subsequently adding other regional destinations. International routes to Bratislava and Prague were inaugurated the following year.

The biplanes operated the mail routes, which were served without every touching down.

“The company’s popular provisional mail deliveries, begun in 1950, were a picture of efficiency,” according to the Malev website. “The flight crews simply dropped mail bags out of the planes at designated points.”

Awarded a post office contract to reach 19 Hungarian domestic locations, Maszovlet combined air mail with a form of barnstorming.

After that year it relocated to Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport, which had been partially completed. Because it was forbidden from assessing fares any higher than those charged for first class rail service, its domestic passenger flights were in high demand.

1954 proved instrumental in the carrier’s history. Not only did it expand internationally-in this case to Warsaw, Berlin, and Bucharest-but the Soviet Union withdrew from the Maszovlet cooperative agreement, resulting in the now autonomous Malev Hungarian Airlines. Released from Russian restrictions, it began a western route expansion program, inaugurating service to the first such destination, Vienna, two years later.

Still intending to exert its influence on the country, however, the Soviet Army invaded Hungary on October 23, 1956, leaving a path of destruction and closing the airport for three months.

Undeterred, Malev embarked upon a fleet modernization program, ordering larger-capacity, twin-piston Ilyushin Il-14s, whose overall low, straight wing and tricycle undercarriage configuration was similar to the Convair 440’s.

Equipped with a three-type, 28-strong fleet, and employing its Li-2s as freighters, it was able to offer new service to many of the European capitals by 1960, including Amsterdam, Belgrade, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Rome, and Stockholm.

Another significant fleet upgrade entailed acquisition of eight Ilyushin Il-18s, a quad-engine turboprop that was often considered the Soviet Lockheed L-188 Electra counterpart, and its range enabled it to serve destinations as far afield as the Middle East and North Africa.

“Hungary was the first Soviet satellite to operate the Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop and the big, efficient, and reliable aircraft gave Malev a good tool for expanding its routes across Europe and the Mediterranean,” according to the Malev website.

By 1961, it served a dozen continental European cities and its Budapest hub became an east-west crossroads for those unable to travel directly from East to West Germany, its flights connecting both.

Its expansion continued. As the decade progressed, it operated to 28 destinations as far west as London, as far north as Helsinki, and as far east as Beirut, and by the end of it it touched down in 33 cities in 28 countries.

Malev entered the jet age with the Tupolev Tu-134, a swept-wing, aft Soloviev D-30 turbofan mounted t-tailed design that served in the same capacity as the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, the British Aircraft Corporation BAC-111, and the McDonnell-Douglas DC-9.

“Originally Malev had intended to buy the Tu-124VE as an Il-14P/Il-14M replacement due for delivery in 1960,” according to Dmitriy Komissarov in “Tupolev Tu-134” (Midland Publishing, 2004, p. 129). “However, the more modern Tu-134 was already undergoing trails at this time and the airline opted for the latter type.”

It placed an order for the 64-passenger aircraft and took delivery of its first at Budapest-Ferihegy on December 22, 1968, immediately placing it into service on the Moscow route. It replaced the last Il-14 that year.

The first of its stretched Tu-134As, delivered in 1971, as placed into service on June 30 between Budapest and Berlin with aircraft HA-LBI.

Its fleet was progressively subjected to upgrades. It installed Western radome and Sundstrand cockpit voice recorders. On January 1, 1983, the twin-jet was reconfigured to accommodate 68 in a business and tourist arrangement, and five years later was given a modern all-white fuselage, dark blue tail, and a diagonal red, white, and green logo to reflect the Hungarian flag, the same year that it began to phase out its original, short-fuselage Tu-134s. Having constituted its short-range European workhorse, they had served 22 destinations.

In order to shed its early Soviet image, Malev began replacing its 13 Tu-134s, -134As, and -134AKs, which had been fitted with both glazed navigator’s stations and Groza-M134 radomes, leaving it to operate its last Tu-134 scheduled service two years later on December 31 with aircraft HA-LBR on a Warsaw rotation.

Malev’s second pure-jet, the t-tailed Tupolev Tu-154 tri-jet, which resembled the Hawker Siddeley Trident and the Boeing 727, replaced the Il-18, enabling it to relegate the type to freight service. They were not retired until January 25, 1989 after 27 years of reliable operations.

It placed its order for three in the spring of 1972, taking delivery of the first, registered HA-LCA, on September 3 of the following year and the other two less than a month later, enabling it to inaugurate the type into service between Budapest and Moscow on September 13 with 109 passengers, replacing its slower and now-outdated Ilyushin Il-18 turboprops.

Modifications necessitated by the type’s stability control problems enabled Tupolev to return its aircraft to Malev as Tu-154As.

Throughout the decade it acquired additional aircraft through orders and leases, and by the fall of 1974 counted HA-LCF, -LCG, and -LCH in its fleet. By the spring of 1976, six Tu-154As and -154Bs served a dozen European destinations from its Budapest home base.

Upgraded to meet ICAO II standards at the end of 1977, Malev had its aircraft converted to Tu-154B-2 to become compliant, HA-LCH becoming the first, with the remainder of the fleet being converted to this standard during scheduled maintenance, although aircraft HA-LCM became the first factory-fresh example.

Including two acquired from Aeroflot, which were registered HA-LCP and -LCR, it eventually operated four Tu-154-2s, the others bearing registrations HA-LCN and -LCO.

Aside from carrying passengers, its first tri-jet, HA-LCA, hauled freight after a 1972 conversion, then ended its career as a grounded, rescue-training airframe at Budapest-Ferihegy.

During 27 years of scheduled and charter passenger and cargo service, Malev’s 18 Tu-154Bs and -154B-2s operated 162,888 individual sectors, transporting 14.5 million passengers some 138 million miles. When aircraft HA-LCN flew its last scheduled serve from Prague to Budapest on March 29, 2001, it became the last Soviet airliner to wear its livery.

Higher capacity aircraft, an expanding route system, and an increasing passenger base necessitated enlarged home base facilities, prompting the construction of a second terminal in Budapest, Ferihegy-2, which was completed in 1985. Unlike other communist bloc carrier, Malev never served any city for political reasons.

Despite pressure to purchase Soviet designs and the acquisition of the 21-passenger Yakovlev Yak-40 as an Li-2 replacement, its Tu-134 twinjets and Tu-154 tri-jets, while having offered greater speed and comfort than its Il-18 turboprops, were loud, fuel-thirsty, and expensive to operate, resulting in the lease from Guinness Peat Aviation of its first Western jet, the Boeing 737-200, registered HA-LEA, on November 18, 1988. It was the second Comecon carrier to do so after Tarom Romanian Airlines, which had ordered BAC-111-424s.

It considered itself “the most progressive of the former Soviet bloc carriers, having long embraced Western aircraft and operating standards.”

The event, taking place on the eve of the collapse of East European communism, added to its significance.

Quieter, featuring six-abreast coach seating and a separate business class section, and offering lower seat-mile costs, its six 737-200s were later supplemented by four 737-300s and two 737-400s, both of which were powered by high bypass ratio turbofans.

“Malev is the national carrier of the Republic of Hungary,” it explained in its mission statement. “It is a dynamically developing air transport and service company with a decisive role to play in Central Europe. Building on its extensive network and relationships, the airline links, via the Budapest center, many European cities and other regions.”

In May of 1989, it entered into its first code-share agreement, entailing the reserve of 50 seats on Pan Am’s Budapest-Vienna-New York/JFK flights, thus enabling it to serve the transatlantic route to the US in the process. After Delta took it over, it continued the agreement.

Acquiring two Boeing 767-200ERs, registered HA-LHA and -LHB, it inaugurated its own transatlantic serve to New York, initially with an intermediate stop in Rome because of Alitalia’s 30-percent stake, worth some $177 million. Although it had initially envisioned achieving increased East European route access, it provided little additional traffic and the investment was short-lived. A stretched 767-300ER, HA-LHC, was leased for charter operations in the summer of 1992.

Becoming a public limited company in 1991 and a joint stock one the following year, it had depended upon the Italian cash infusion, since its government subsidies ceased. To counterbalance the new financial situation, it was forced to significantly raise fares on certain routes.

Malev improved its service standards.

“When Soviet experts helped the carrier resume operations after the Great Patriotic War, the west was now called upon to transport Malev into parity with its contemporaries,” according to the Malev website. “The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Association of European Airlines (AEA) helped train some of the company’s staff. Scandinavian Airlines System helped bring Malev’s in-flight service up to standard. A US-based human resources consulting firm helped prepare performance and hiring guidelines and to improve the morale of employees conditioned to apathy by years under an oppressive bureaucracy.”

Its recovery plan proved successful. In 1995 it posted a 186 million Hungarian forint profit. In 1996 it celebrated its half-century anniversary, operating 14, 648 scheduled flights and carrying 1.8 million passengers. Coincidentally, the country celebrated its own 1,100th anniversary that year. By 1997, it provided 1,300 weekly connections at its Budapest hub with three daily flight banks.

Fokker F.70 twinjets replaced its last Tu-134As and 50-seat Canadair CRJ-100s and -200s served lower-capacity routes. In 2003, it began replacing its 737 Classics with Next-Generation 737-600s, -700s, and -800s.

After eight years of being almost exclusively owned by the Hungarian State Privatization Company-to the tune of 99.5 percent, with the other 0.5 percent in small investor hands-Malev was acquired by AirBridge in February of 2007 and the following month became a member of the Oneworld alliance.

Yet the next three years were characterized by fleet, route, and employee reductions, financial difficulties, and multiple CEOs, the most promising of whom was Martin Gauss, who had held the same position at Deutsche BA and Cirrus Airlines and who implemented several positive turnaround measures. But an 8,000-Euro salary cap for managers of state-owned companies hastened his departure.

By February of 2010, the carrier was renationalized. The Hungarian government acquired 95 percent of its share, while AirBridge retained the rest.

2011’s figures were promising. Operating four de Havilland of Canada DHC-8-400s, six 737-600s, seven 737-700s, and five 737-800s, and employing 2,600, it carried 3.2 million passengers.

But the end of its 66-year history was now only a month away. On January 9, 2012, the European Union determined that the state aid it had been given between 2007 and 2010 had been illegal, ordering it to repay the equivalent of $171 million, then its entire 2010 revenue.

By the end of the month, it could no longer fund its operations, causing it to cease flying on February 3. Two of its aircraft were repossessed-one in Ireland and the other in Israel. Eleven days later, now $270.5 million in debt, it was declared insolvent by the Metropolitan Court of Budapest, leaving other European carriers and Hungary’s own low-fare Wizz Air to fill the traffic void.

Article Sources

Forward, David C. “Malev Capitalism with Charisma.” “Airways.” September-October 1997.

Komissarov, Dimitriy. “Tupolev Tu-134.” Hinckley, England: Midland Publishing, 2004.

Laszlo, Viktor. “Goodbye Tu-154B-2.” “Airways.” September 2001.

Malev Hungarian Airlines Website.