75 years of Belgrade - Zurich flights


Written by Veljko Marinković

A nonstop air link between Zurich and Belgrade, the largest cities in both Switzerland and the former Yugoslavia, was established exactly 75 years ago. Swissair's first DC-3 took off from Zurich's relatively new Kloten Airport and headed towards Belgrade's old airport. Not only was Swissair the first Western European airline to serve the former Yugoslavia following World War II, but Belgrade was also among the first Eastern European capitals to be connected to the West via air travel, making the launch of these flights highly significant. Just over a month later, on August 24, 1949, JAT Yugoslav Airlines introduced a scheduled service from Belgrade to Zurich via Zagreb with a DC-3, making it the fifth foreign airline globally to do so. By starting these flights, Belgrade and other parts of EX-YU gained indirect access to other regions of the world and connected to a major European air traffic hub.

JAT DC-3 pictured at Zurich Kloten Airport at the beginning of the 1950s

Beginning in 1939, Swissair operated three promotional flights (South, North, and West) to the National Exhibition with the DC-3 HB-IRA, marking the beginning of sporadic flights between Belgrade and Zurich. Starting its journey from Zurich and onto Rome, Athens, Cairo, Athens, Sofia, Bucharest, Belgrade, Budapest, and back to Zurich was the path taken by the first aircraft. Additionally, freight flights were operated, the majority of which carried gold reserves from a Swiss bank. Initially, from 1949, depending on the season, there were one or two weekly scheduled flights between Belgrade and Zurich. The fact that JU320/321 and SR246/247 were operated in a single day or that the DC-3 aircraft's return flight took place the next day was also impacted by the seasons. The introduction of flights to Zurich was of particular importance for Yugoslavia since it reduced dependence on Prague, which was formerly the main transit point for travellers from Yugoslavia to abroad and vice versa. The vast majority of passengers and cargo transported on the Belgrade - Zurich route were also in transit to other destinations.

Swissair destination network 1957 » Swissair ad for Belgrade flights by von Henri Ott, 1951

It is interesting to note that it took longer than anticipated for other foreign airlines to begin nonstop flights to Belgrade. Swissair was the sole foreign carrier until 1954 when the Greek TAE began service on the Athens – Thessaloniki - Belgrade route, and British Eagle Aviation began service from London via Munich. The Soviet Aeroflot then joined in 1955. It was therefore not surprising that, among all foreign airlines, Swissair continued to hold the lead in terms of passengers transported at Belgrade Airport in the early 1960s of the 20th century. In 1956, JAT operated flights using a mix of DC-3s, IL-14s, and Convair aircraft, while Swissair upgraded to a larger and more modern Convair 440 Metropolitan. In the mid-1960s, JAT doubled the number of flights and passengers on its Belgrade -Zurich flights, but the biggest increase was recorded in 1964 when JAT deployed the Caravelle jet on the route. On the other hand, Swissair also introduced the Caravelle into regular traffic to Belgrade, with Swissair being the first airline to land a jet plane at the newly opened airport in 1962.

Swissair Coronado 880 jet and crew at Belgrade Airport, 1967 » Swissair Convair 440 Metropoliten at Belgrade Airport, April 1962

Apart from offering nonstop flights to Belgrade, Swissair had another historic moment at Belgrade Airport in in 1965 when it started operating two-weekly 4-engine Coronado 880 flights to Istanbul via Belgrade. However, JAT also valued special occasions, so in 1969 it deployed the DC-9 (leased I-DIKY), on the Belgrade - Zurich route, further highlighting the significance of this service and its influence on the growth of the company. Both airlines started offering new flights from Zurich to other EX-YU cities in the 1970s, and as EX-YU aviation grew, so did the number of flights on the Belgrade - Zurich route. At the same time the capacity of the aircraft used expanded. Belgrade was also selected by Swissair to be among the first cities where its new DC-9-81 was deployed. Both airlines were running daily flights between the two cities by the end of the 1980s. In tribute to Swissair being the first foreign airline to fly to Belgrade following World War II, Swissair’s newly acquired Fokker 100 aircraft made its inaugural flight from Zurich to Belgrade on May 25, 1988.

JAT Caravelle jet at Zurich Airport, 1965

First JAT DC-9 on final approach at Zurich Airport, operating its maiden flight, 1969

It is interesting to note that both national carriers accomplished enviable cooperation through knowledge-sharing and personnel training. JAT made the initial modifications to the DC-3 type aircraft, following Swissair in the process. It built and installed lighter, thinner seats in its workshop so that the DC-3 could carry 28 people rather than the original 20. Swissair handled JAT’s ticket sales in Switzerland until 1963 when Yugoslav Airlines opened its own office at 70 Limmatquai Street in downtown Zurich. JAT also handled Swissair’s ticket sales in Belgrade. Afterwards, JAT performed some of its DC-10 maintenance at the Swiss carrier's hangars.

JAT DC-9 pictured at Zurich Airport, on August 24, 1974, exactly 25 years after the first flight between Belgrade and Zurich » Swissair DC-9 at Belgrade Airport pictured on July 9, 1974, exactly 25 years after first flight between Belgrade and Zurich » Swissair stewardesses Rita Gans Wein and Ursula Sieber alongside JATs Snežana Ristić celebrating 25th anniversary » A map for JAT’s office in Zurich downtown, 1974 »

Swissair advertisements published in Yugoslav newspapers, in the 1970s

JAT: 40 years of flying Belgrade-Zurich postcard, 1989

Swissair: Thank you note to Yugoslavia and JAT for 40 years of cooperation, 1989

Sadly, the first flight disruptions between the two cities occurred in the early years of the 1990s as a result of the sanctions that were put in force. Swissair halted all its flights to Belgrade on May 31, 1991, and two days later, JAT followed likewise. When services restarted in 1994, JAT operated a combination of DC-9, Boeing 727, and 737 aircraft, while Swissair primarily used the McDonnell Douglas MD-81 "mad dog" aircraft. The first commercial aircraft from a Western foreign airline to land at Belgrade Airport following a lifted flight ban (imposed due to NATO bombing) was an Airbus A321 flown by Swissair from Zurich on March 22, 2000. A few minutes later, an Olympic Airways aircraft from Athens landed at Belgrade Airport, while Aeroflot was already connecting Moscow and Belgrade. When new nonstop flights between Belgrade and Zurich operated by Montenegro Airlines were added at the start of the new millennium, the number of airlines operating between the two cities increased to three. These flights were in operation until 2006. The number of passengers and flights increased steadily in the coming period, so it was not uncommon to see a wide-body DC-10 on a scheduled flight between the two cities, and nowadays during the holidays Air Serbia’s Airbus A330 with Nikola Tesla or Mihajlo Pupin livery.

JAT DC -10 taxing at Zurich Airport by Pascal Simon, 2003

SWISS Airbus A319 at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, 2011

Today, 75 years later, Zurich remains one of Belgrade's most popular destinations. It is served by both Swiss International Air Lines and Air Serbia and is ranked third in terms of weekly flights, just behind Tivat and Podgorica.

Air Serbia Airbus A319, Zurich Airport by Andre Bonn




Comments

  1. Anonymous13:40

    Very nice article. It also shows how Belgrade was always an aviation pioneer even from the times of AeroPut. No wonder that today Belgrade is once again an important regional player when it comes to aviation.

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    Replies
    1. Anonymous14:31

      +1

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    2. Anonymous16:46

      First airport was Pančevo, then Bežanijska Kosa. Only bit left of old airport is Milanković hangar at Airport city and runway at Blok 41A. Old terminal building inside garden of Blok 37. Runway started/ended at Novi Merkator and was 100 metres wide.

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  2. Anonymous13:48

    Great write up and history refresh! Nice to see that this route is doing well even these days and is one with a great passenger numbers. Kudos to both JU and LX for bringing the two cities closer to each other.

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    1. Anonymous16:55

      It was SR not LX. LX was Crossair.

      Delete
    2. Anonymous17:55

      I wrote LX meaning Swiss as it is the ancestor of SR.

      Delete
  3. Anonymous14:31

    Save gas, fly with Swissair and JAT, brilliant. Article is superb, as always.

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  4. Anonymous15:30

    It's interesting how Swiss was quick in restarting BEG flights. Best example for when politics stop, business finds it's way very fast

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  5. Anonymous16:29

    It is a shame that Swissair went bankrupt in 2001 and its successor Swiss was sold to Lufthansa. It was one of the world’s great airlines in terms of innovation, quality and service. It also founded the first global alliance called Global excellence with Delta and Singapore Airlines. It was also highly profitable and known as the flying bank until it made disastrous investments in underperforming airlines under its hunter strategy. Sound familiar!

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    1. Anonymous20:09

      A lot of good airlines went bankrupt, unfortunately, and the trend looks like only a few will survive. Today, airlines differ only in the livery, everything else is more or less the same, while earlier it was a fight for the passenger and the desire to differentiate

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  6. Anonymous16:37

    Does anyone remember the Caravelles landing at the old Bezanija/Zemun airport, present Airport City?

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    1. Anonymous17:58

      As far as I understood I, that happened only once, during promotional flight of the aircraft, when it was empty. All future flights were out of the new airport at Surčin

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    2. Anonymous19:06

      Must have been quite a sight at Сурчин/Surchin when they saw such a new and modern aircraft land there.

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    3. Anonymous20:30

      If you look at the pictures, Surčin was in the middle of nowhere and not a single house or apartment building in sight unlike today. And plus there was no highway link, so well and truly out of the way.

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    4. Anonymous22:45

      I meant people working in Сурчин at the airport

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  7. Anonymous19:39

    Swiss stopped flying to Belgrade in May 1992 and not 1991.

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    1. Anonymous20:32

      You mean Swissair. Swiss is the rebranded Crossair which took over most of Swissair's fleet in March 2002.

      Delete
    2. Anonymous09:31

      This is a fantastic article and the photos are great. However Anon 19:39 is right, the flights stopped on May 31, 1992 and not 1991.
      Furthermore, JAT didn't fly for another two days. I was due to fly to ZRH on May 31, 1992 and it was pandemonium at BEG as almost all flights were cancelled due to UN sanctions. The vote was on May 30 and UN sanctions were in force from midnight. All flights were stopped and if I remember correctly only Athens, Moscow and Prague were flown that day by JAT. I managed to reroute from ZRH (which was not flown) to PRG and then got on a CSA Tu-154 to ZRH from there. There were virtually thousands of people left at BEG, as no-one realised the severity of UN sanctions and that they will really start being enforced immediately.

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  8. Anonymous20:19

    Most of the pictures I haven't seen so far, really beautiful collection. Dc10 looks so powerful and chubby

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  9. Anonymous20:34

    Mislim da poslovnica od JU nije mogla da bude na boljoj lokaciju u centru Ciriha

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    1. Anonymous09:32

      Naravno da nije, lokacija je bilo najbolja kao što je bilo uglavnom po svim glavnim lokacijama u svetu.

      Delete
  10. Anonymous20:36

    Yes and JU had great locations throughout the world, Park Avenue in New York and Phillip Street in Sydney to name a few.

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  11. JU520 BEGLAX20:44

    What a nice and informative article about the anniversary of flights between Yugoslavia and Switzerland. My first flight was in July 1970 and through all the years I have been flying from ZRH to LJU, ZAG, BEG, TGD and SPU with Swissair, Crossair on behalf of SR, JAT, Adria, Montenegro Airlines, Air Canada, Croatia Airlines, Pan Am and Swiss. I have flown aircraft types such as the Caravelle, Saab 340, Saab 2000, DC9-32, MD81, MD82, A310-200, Boeing 727-200, Boeing 737-300, Jumbolinos, ATR-42, Dash-7, Dash-8-400, A220-100, A220-300, A319, A320, A321, Fokker 100, Embraer 190, Embraer 190-E2, Embraer 195, CRJ-200, CRJ-700, CRJ-900 and Boeing 767-200ER and I am still full of memories. Not to forget the scenes at ZRH Airport during the war in the 1990s, when Terminal B was on certain days full of YU travellers, tickets were sold like on a bazar and it was so crowded, that they had to install out of the terminal, provisoric office boxes, where people could buy their tickets. Unforgettable are for sure the B727-200 of the YU government in 1980 which brought me to LJU, or my SR A310-200 flight which operated regularly ZRH-ZAG-BEG in the 1980s as SR 456, my Pan Am B727 flight ZRH-ZAG-BEG in Sep 1990 (attending the UEFA Europecup of the Champions, now Champions League between Crvena Zvezda and Grasshoppers), the Air Canada Boeing 767-200ER flight ZRH-ZAG, or the first Swissair flight to Ljubljana in March 1989. Many people I brought to the airport or picked them up from JU and SR flights. I have started working 1986 at ZRH Airport, I knew Mrs Savic from the JAT Counter and by working at the airport with the office directed to RW 28, I have seen 1000s of JU departures over the years, especially JU321 ZRH ZAG BEG around 1530h. And the visit early June to buy the Summer Holiday ticket at Limmatquai 70 each year, was every time a highlight. On top of that I have represented in cargo Montenegro Airlines and Adria Airways with unforgettable stories such as pick up of an engine part for a Montenegro Airlines Fokker with the government plane of MNE, the Cigarettes charters to PRN or the trucking! of excess baggage to TGD, cause the ZRHTGD flight could not carry all the bags during the Summer holidays season. Switzerland-ex YU flights are of great history and we enjoy from many connections, which hopefully in the coming years will be further expanded.

    Thank u Luka for this article, it will be shared with many friends, customers or airport staff.

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    Replies
    1. JU520 BEGLAX20:56

      As an add on, in the late 1980s, SR 456 Crews ZRHZAGBEG were overnighting in BEG for 24h, they stayed at the Intercontinental, where we YU citizens could sleep at YU prices at around 30 USD per night. I met them many times there or had breakfast with them. The flights in Winter to BEG were sometimes cancelled due to heavy fog, at that time it was wise to use SR rather than JAT. Swissair placed their passengers in the Intercontinental, where JAT passengers were at Hotel Slavija. Unforgettable are also the SR station managers in LJU Mr Weber who opened LJU for SR, ZAG Mr. Wagner and Erwin Michel in Belgrade, who even spoke serbo-croatian.

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    2. Anonymous21:20

      Both JU321 and SR456 operated via Zagreb which in today’s world seems surreal.

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    3. Anonymous21:25

      JAT did own the 2 Slavija Hotels I believe but the Intercontinental was next level. I think it was opened up for Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1979. However, the Hyatt Regency was nicer when that opened up just before the war.

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    4. Anonymous21:42

      @JU520 BEGLAX you are one lucky guy that had opportunity to fly with all these beauties

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    5. Anonymous21:49

      @JU520 BEGLAX was A310 regular on ZRH-ZAG-BEG or just in high demand?

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    6. JU520 BEGLAX22:07

      Anonym 2142h
      Thank u. Back in the 1970/1980s it was common to just fly once a year for the July holidays. I was every time so excited, with beginning the journey at Zürich HB with the grey Swissair Bus. 🤩

      Anonym 2149h
      A310-200 was regularly deployed for SR 456, I think 3-4 weekly, with the other flights operated with the MD81. Ex YU was one and is still one of the biggest diaspora in Switzerland. I think today we hve already 4th generation of ex YU people and many are no more counted foreigners, as they have Swiss passports. Also I am no more counted as foreigner as I got 1989 the Swiss citizenship. (I kept my YU citizenship 1989 exceptionally due to a pragmatic consul at the YU consulate in Zurich. Switzerland in 1989 requested to give up YU citizenship, but the consul told me, dont worry, give them the passport, they will send it to us and we will send it back to you. So I stayed "Jugo" and I even still have my Jugoslavija passport somewhere stored in the cellar. 😊

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    7. Anonymous07:08

      Was there a need for such a routing because of regulatory reasons? Could they not have sent a Fokker 100 to both ZAG and BEG instead of an A310 on the milk run.

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    8. Anonymous09:43

      @JU520 BEGLAX - A310-200 was rather a rare occurrence at ZAG and BEG, mostly during high season both in summer and winter. I flew the route a couple of hundred times in the 80s and had the A310 maybe once or twice. SR mostly flew DC-9-30 to ZAG/BEG until 1988 when they were retired and gradually switched over to MD-81/82, also depending on demand. I'd say most of the flights in the latter part of the 80s were flown with MDs.
      As for questions regarding ZAG/BEG flights, this was pretty usual back in the 70s/80s to have several landings until your destination.

      Delete

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