A century of flying from Belgrade

Written by Veljko Marinković

Belgrade was listed on the map among the few capital cities that could boast of direct connections to the most important centers in Europe just a few years after the first commercial flight in history. The first aircraft of the French-Romanian Company for Air Transport, or CFRNA (Compagnie Franco - Roumanie de Navigation Aérienne), Air France’s predecessor, the Bleriot Spad 46 (F-AEGS), landed in Belgrade on March 25, 1923, after flying the regular Paris - Istanbul (Constantinople) route via Strasbourg, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and to Bucharest and Istanbul. In EX-YU history, this day - 100 years ago - is marked as the beginning of civil commercial aviation. With only forced interruptions caused by the Second World War and during the 1990s, Paris is the first and longest-running route from Belgrade, alongside Vienna.

CFRNA ads for the Paris-Istanbul route via Belgrade in Serbian and French, 1920’s

From April 16 through the end of October 1923, daily flights by Potez VII-type aircraft were operated from Belgrade to the west and east. However, poor weather forced the suspension of the route until the following spring. Aviation experts from France toured the area around Belgrade and decided that the newly constructed airport should be situated in the neighbouring town of Pančevo as a temporary solution until Belgrade Airport is built because at the time, Belgrade, as the capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, did not have an airport. For that purpose, pastureland stretching across 500 meters, was allocated as an airplane station, but under the condition that the pasture would continue to be used when the runway was not being used aircraft. Therefore, the pilot, before landing, had to make several turns around the airfield before performing a safe landing. Passengers from the airport were shuttled to Pančevo by coaches before taking a boat to Belgrade at the time because there was no bridge over the Danube. Compared to traveling by plane from Budapest or Bucharest, this trip took a longer time. The French-Romanian Company had obligations to maintain yearly flights, base up to 8 aircraft at Pančevo, and also employ local citizens as part of the ground and flight crew. CFRN was given rights as an exclusive carrier to and from the Kingdom. Additionally, a yearly subsidy was provided. It's interesting to note that the contract required CFRN to pay penalties for each delayed flight, which were expressed in the form of a lower subsidy for that month.

Passenger and pilot cabin of the Caudron C-61 bis aircraft » Caudron C-61 bis aircraft, 1923 » Bleriot Spad 46 (F-AEGS) preparing for departure » Spad, 1925 » Belgrade (Pančevo) Airport

Flights between Paris and Istanbul were established primarily for two reasons. First and foremost, it had a political connotation, with the gathering of allies under the framework of the "Little Entente" and ties to adversaries of the past through France's expanding influence in Europe. Secondly, Franco-Romanian wished to compete with the fabled "Orient Express", the rail route that connected these two parts of Europe, and shorten travel times in order to attract passengers. However, the Simplon of the Orient Express operated continuously day and night, traveling from Paris to Istanbul in just under four days and arriving in Istanbul before the plane (due to the planned night break). However, in September 1923, the world of aviation underwent a revolution. The first night flight in the world was operated on the night between September 9 and 10, 1923, on the route Belgrade (Pančevo) - Bucharest. The first scheduled night passenger flight on the same route followed ten days later. After five hours and ten minutes of flying, a specially modified Caudron C-61 bis aircraft (F-AFCP), designed for night-time flying and equipped with three engines, eight passengers, and two crew members (pilot and navigator), touched down in Bucharest. The aircraft had the first goniometers in the history of aviation, as well as electric cabin lighting, pilot and passenger cabin heating, a radio, external signal lights on the front and back of the aircraft, and other features that allowed it to travel at night. Two reflectors were also attached to the front of the aircraft, and the aircraft itself had rockets that could be launched to illuminate the runway. Pančevo Airport was specially lit, and beacons were placed every 25 kilometres along the Danube to serve as visible landmarks for pilots. The flight took 32 hours to complete from Paris to Istanbul, and during that time the Franco-Romanian company surpassed the Simplon Orient Express, which travelled the same route in nearly 2.5 times as much time.

Passengers board first commercial night flight in the world, Belgrade (Pančevo) Airport, 19234

Only 422 passengers were carried during the operation's first year from/to Belgrade; however, 634 passengers would be carried throughout the following year. Demand mostly existed on flights from the west to the east, and the majority of the passengers were politicians, journalists, and businesspeople, according to the daily "Politika" and magazine "Naša krila". On the other hand, cargo transportation was much more common, resulting in 16 tons being transported in the first year, and 40 tons in 1924, more than doubling that amount. One of the most popular products carried by plane was women's hats, for the Belgrade ladies. In 1924, 30.000 "Parisian" ladies' hats were imported, but most of them were produced in Vienna. The majority of the meat sector products were exported on flights out of Belgrade, primarily on flights to Prague. However, with the founding of the domestic airline Aeroput and the opening of a new airport in Belgrade in 1927, beneath the Bežanijska Kosa hill, in accordance with the project of the renowned scientist Milutin Milanković, growth in air transport services would be gradually achieved.

Tadija Sondemeyer, a pilot and the CEO of Aeroput, had a significant influence on the expansion and promotion of aviation in Yugoslavia. The two took off from Paris together with the Russian aviator Leonid Bajdak for Bombay, India. Both of them landed in Belgrade after flying nearly 14.800 kilometres in 14 days, where they were welcomed by 30.000 people. The Franco-Romanian company changed its name to CIDNA (Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne) in 1925, and two years later it added a route from Belgrade to Athens via Thessaloniki and Sofia. As a result, the new Belgrade Airport was established as a true crossroads, or in today's terms, a hub airport, for this region of Europe. Even amphibious flights, with landings on the Danube or Sava near the Kalemegdan Fortress, were intended by CIDNA, but those flights were since been abandoned. In order to establish a national carrier in France, CIDNA and four more companies merged in 1933. Up until 1939, Air France operated flights on the "Flèche d'Orient" (East Arrow) from Paris to Belgrade. Despite the fact that this route was very successful, it was discontinued when Air France lost its privileged status.

CIDNA and Air France advertisements in Serbian, English, and French for the Paris-Istanbul route, via Belgrade, in the 1930s

In the mid-1930s Belgrade had the most aerial connections to Vienna, where Aeroput and Austrian ÖLAG (Österreichische Luftverkehrs AG) maintained scheduled flights, while Air France and Lufthansa operated flights via Vienna to Belgrade and onwards to the east. It's interesting to note that Aeroput never flew between the French and Yugoslav capitals. However, that changed on March 17, 1952, when JAT Yugoslav Airlines' first aircraft, a veteran of the wartime years, the popular DC-3, took off, exactly at 10:05 am, under the command of JAT chief pilot Milisav Semiz, on an inaugural 10-hour journey from Belgrade via Zagreb and Munich to the "City of Lights". JAT aircraft performed three weekly flights to Paris-Le Bourget Airport as JU240, with the return trip to Belgrade operating the following day.These flight numbers to Paris remained unchanged for sixty years up until Air Serbia made modifications. For JAT, the introduction of flights to Paris was a significant event, not only because it was one of the major world cities and the largest city in its network, but also because it was the first step toward establishing JAT's own Orient Express route, connecting the west and east via Belgrade.

JAT Caravelle taxing at Paris Orly Airport 1960’s » JAT menu, 1952 » JAT check-in desk at Paris Le Bourget Airport, 1954 » JAT 240, Convair 340 boarding at old Belgrade Airport » JAT Belgrade-Paris ad »

JAT and Air France promotional campaign for Belgrade-Paris-North America flights » JAT Convair 340 YU-ADB, at Paris Orly Airport 1960’s » JAT Caravelle boarding at Paris Orly Airport 1960’s »

As JAT introduced larger and more comfortable aircraft, they were immediately deployed on the Belgrade - Paris sector, but the true renaissance on the route occurred on the first day of April 1963, when the first Yugoslav jet and the first Caravelle operated its maiden flights to Paris via Zagreb, shortening flight times to just over two hours. With the opening of the new Belgrade Airport in 1962, conditions were met - after an almost thirty-year hiatus - for Air France to restart flights with its own metal, the Caravelle jet. The AF Caravelle flew from Paris Orly Airport to Belgrade and then onto Bucharest every Wednesday and Friday at 9:10 a.m. since 1967. In 1975, Air France gradually grew frequencies between Belgrade and Paris to as many as four per week using the Boeing 727, while JAT operated the same route using a DC-9. JAT boosted frequencies and switched to the larger B727 starting in 1980. With frequent travellers on every trip including actors, musicians, composers, writers, and politicians, the Belgrade - Paris service and vice versa became among the most popular routes.

Publication of an Air France advertisement announcing future Belgrade-Paris flights in "Politika" daily, 1967 » Air France SE-210 Caravelle III “Guyane“ and Boeing 727, Belgrade Airport, 1970s »

An unusual event on the Belgrade - Paris route happened in January 1975 - at Paris Orly Airport, when, during an attempted terrorist attack on El Al Boeing 707, an RPG-7 rocket missed its target and hit a JAT Douglas DC-9 (YU-AHP). The rocket entered row 12 and exited row 13. The DC-9 was about to board 31 passengers a few minutes later on a scheduled flight to Belgrade, but luckily only one crew member received minor injuries. The overall costs were estimated to be 1.5 million US dollars when YU-AHP was finally able to take to the air after nearly two months of work. The deployment of the first Boeing 737-300 in Europe to Paris by JAT in cooperation with Boeing and CFMI ten years later was a much better event as a result of the presentation of the new features of the aircraft. The first JAT 737, the most advanced airplane at the time, was visited by more than 700 guests from various aviation branches. Those days in Paris, JAT's Boeing 737 was the plane everyone was talking about.

JAT Boeing 737-3H9 YU-ANW taxing at Paris Orly, 1990 » Adria Airways office in Paris downtown, 1990 » JAT Paris office, at the junction of two boulevards (des Italiens and des Capucines), 1980 » JAT DC-9 (YU-AHP) after attack at Paris Orly, 1975 » JAT Boeing 727 YU-AKF and DC-9 at Paris Orly, 1981 »

Flights between Belgrade and Paris were frequently halted between 1991 and 2001 due to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. However, the first flights to resume after sanctions were lifted were those to Paris and Vienna. Flights to the Serbian capital were continuously maintained by JAT and subsequently Jat Airways, but Air France discontinued its Belgrade service several times in the new century. Jat Airways predominately used Boeing 737s on the route, and according to passenger testimonials, the true business class that featured large leather seats in dark blue is still remembered with fond memories. For the first time ever, JAT operated two flights per days on an international service, from Paris to Belgrade, in 2001. In the initial stages, daily flights on the route utilising Airbus A319 and A320 planes operated by Air France were resumed in 2005. Additionally, AF flew the A318, the smallest of the Airbus family's narrow-body aircraft, on some days, giving travellers flying between Belgrade and Paris the chance to experience aviation history since only 80 of the type were built. In 2013, Air France once more suspended its daily flights from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport as part of the airline's cost-cutting measures and in response to strong competition from Jat Airways. The low cost carrier, Wizz Air, announced the opening of a route to Beauvais Airport, located 85 kilometres from the French capital, just 24 hours after it was announced that Air France was ending its flights.

JAT DC-10 YU-AMB crossing highway at Paris - Charles de Gaulle, 2001 » JAT Boeing 727 YU-AKJ at CDG, 1996 » JAT Boeing 737 after flight from Paris, while Air France Boeing 737 preparing for the flight to Paris. Belgrade Airport, 1998 »

With a double-daily service to Paris in the summer of 2014, Air Serbia, the airline that succeeded JAT and Jat Airways, continued to dominate the route. Paris remained one of the most frequently flown destinations out of Belgrade. A total of 917.950 passengers flew between Belgrade, Charles de Gaulle Airport, and Beauvais Airport from 2016 to 2019. The French national airline Air France resumed service between Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and Belgrade in 2019 after a six-year absence, which was not entirely unexpected given the data. Between the two cities, the airline operated daily flights using a mix of Airbus A319 and A320 aircraft. ASL Airlines France, another French carrier, began operating on the route during that same year. A 147-seat yellow-and-blue Boeing 737-700 made two weekly rotations to Belgrade. Sadly, these flights were short-lived. Regrettably, in the jubilee year, Air France again halted seasonal flights to Belgrade. On the other hand, one of Air Serbia's busiest routes is to Paris. Wizz Air has consistently increased frequencies between the two cities throughout the years, together with the Serbian carrier. The low cost airline will operate five weekly rotations on the route over the summer.

AF A318 Landing on runway 12, Belgrade 2007 » Jat Airways YU-ANJ Landing 08R while A332 F-GZCK is departing 08L Paris - Charles de Gaulle 2004 » Air France Airbus A318, Belgrade, 2010 »

With over thirty new routes scheduled to be added to its network this summer, Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport is set to surpass the previous record for the number of passengers served, a century after the first flight, serving a total of over 130 scheduled routes (excluding charters). The Belgrade - Paris servie continues to be a prestige route, and given the price of tickets, it likely will be in the future. A century of flight demonstrates that EX-YU aviation was a significant part of worldwide aviation from the start. Additionally, on this day, it is important to pay tribute to some of the domestic aviation pioneers, such as Ivan Sarić and Edvard Rusijan.

Air Serbia A319 YU-APD taxing at Paris - Charles de Gaulle, 2018 » Air France Airbus A319 and ASL Airlines Boeing 737-700 at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport »

Special thanks to Mr. Aleksandar Pozder, Delta Aviation Museum, Paris


  1. Anonymous09:31

    "but under the condition that the pasture would continue to be used when the runway was not being used" 😀😀😀 that would be interesting to see

    1. Anonymous10:59

      Agree. Today, pastures near the airport still exist. I have spotted cows several times in Zurich.

  2. Anonymous10:03

    Bravo on the article! 🙌🏻

  3. Slav.man10:10

    Great article, thank you.

  4. Anonymous10:29

    Very nice article, enjoyed reading it👏🏼

  5. Anonymous10:54

    first time to hear about this incident in Paris. I've now read that they initially believed JU DC9 was the intended target and that the JAT female flight attendant carried her injured colleague outside the aircraft on her hands. Kudos to ex YU for such interesting historical facts and in general for past articles. Looking forward to the next one

  6. Saša14:26

    Such a great article!

  7. Anonymous14:58

    Wow, what an article! Thank you for all the words, time and research.

  8. Anonymous16:12

    Hvala Veljko and ExYu Av!

  9. Anonymous16:31

    Is that Pan American Boeing 727 on that picture behind AF Caravel??! Odd

    1. Anonymous16:39

      Not odd. At one time Pan Am operated flights to Belgrade from its European base in Frankfurt with B727. There is actually history on the Pan Am service to Belgrade in that 60 years of Belgrade Airport article that is linked at the bottom of this article.

    2. Anonymous20:44

      Appreciate for the info, I have read only parts, probably missed. Homework to do

  10. Anonymous09:57

    So it seems that Air France, or what was the first name, was national carrier for a couple of years, before Aeroput was established. I like that air France ad from 1967.

  11. Beautiful article, real delight to read. Hope for many more in the future.


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