Interflug GmbH was the national airline of East Germany from 1963 to 1990. Based in East Berlin, it operated scheduled and chartered flights to European and intercontinental destinations out of its hub at Berlin Schönefeld Airport, focusing on Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) countries. Following the German reunification, the company was disbanded and liquidated.
Until 1945, Deutsche Luft Hansa had served as German flag carrier. Following the end of World War II and the subsequent allied occupation of Germany, all aircraft in the country were seized and the airline was liquidated.
In 1954, a West German company acquired the Lufthansa trademark. In 1955, Deutsche Lufthansa was founded as rival East German flag carrier. It soon became obvious that the East German airline would likely lose a lawsuit over the use of the Lufthansa branding. As a consequence, Interflug was set up on 18 September 1958 as a "back-up" company, initially intended to complement the East German aviation industry by operating chartered flights. In 1963, the East German Lufthansa was liquidated, officially due to poor profitability (though this step foreclosed the imminent stripping of the Lufthansa name). Its staff, aircraft fleet, and route network was transferred to Interflug, which henceforth served as the East German flag carrier.
Interflug Gesellschaft für
internationalen Flugverkehr m.b.H.
East German National Airline
As a state-owned airline, Interflug with its approximate 8,000 employees was under control of the National Defense Council, which held the supreme command of the East German armed forces.
The majority of the pilots of Interflug were reserve officers of the National People's Army (and as such required to be members of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany), and all of its aircraft could have been requisitioned for military purposes at any time. Klaus Henkes, who became General Director of the airline in 1978, had previously served as General of the East German Air Force.
Applicants for the job of a flight attendant needed to be approved of by the Stasi, in order to assess their so-called political reliability, minimizing espionage and escape attempts in Western countries. On warning of suspension, Interflug crews were not allowed to associate with employees of airlines from non-socialist countries.
Over the 1960s, the airline saw a significant growth, concerning both its route network and fleet of Soviet-built aircraft. The Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliner became the backbone of Interflug's short haul flights during that period. The company had been intended the primary operator of the Baade 152, an early jet airliner constructed in East Germany. The development never went beyond the prototype phase, though, and was abandoned in 1961. In 1969, the Tupolev Tu-134 was introduced, the first jet airliner operated by Interflug. It was operated on the airline's European routes. The long range Il-62 became part of the fleet in 1971. In the same year, the number of annual Interflug passengers reached 1 million.
Following the 1970s energy crisis with its growing fuel prices, Interflug gradually dismantled its domestic route network. The last scheduled flight (from East Berlin to Erfurt) took place in April 1980.
Late 1980s and German reunification
During the 1980s, Interflug had to cope with increasing problems due to its ageing fleet: The fuel efficiency proved to be inferior compared to (at that time) modern Western airliners, and noise protection regulations meant that the company had to pay increased landing fees, in some cases even facing bans from operating at certain airports. Western-built airliners (most notably those produced by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas or Airbus) could not be delivered to countries of the Soviet bloc because of the CoCom embargo. Following a deal between Boeing and LOT Polish Airlines for the purchase of six Boeing 767 aircraft and in order to acknowledge the Perestroika movement, commercial airliners were exempted from the trade embargo in 1988. Also Malév Hungarian Airlines bought Boeings in 1988. In the same year, Interflug placed an order for three Airbus A310 long haul aircraft, worth DM 420 million. The deal was secured with the sponsorship of Franz Josef Strauss, then Minister-President of Bavaria, chairman of the Airbus supervisory board and responsible for West German loans granted to East Germany.
The first Airbus A310 was delivered to Interflug on 26 June 1989. The East German crews for the new aircraft type were trained in West Germany, where any maintenance work was carried out, too. The A310 allowed for non-stop flights to Cuba (previously, flights had needed a fuel stop at Gander International Airport in Canada).
Following the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and the subsequent political changes in East Germany, several foreign airlines expressed intentions to take over parts of the highly unprofitable company, in order to get a grip on the German air traffic market, especially concerning Berlin. In early March 1990, Lufthansa signed a letter of intent to acquire 26 percent in Interflug, but the offer was blocked by the Federal Cartel Office. Plans for a take-over by British Airways did not materialize, either (instead, Deutsche BA was formed in 1992). On 1 July 1990, Interflug became a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
As a consequence of the German reunification on 3 October 1990, Interflug came under the administration of the Treuhandanstalt, along with all other state-owned property of East Germany. As no investors could be found, it was announced on 7 February 1991 that Interflug with its then 2,900 employees and 20 aircraft would be liquidated. Subsequently, the airline was dismantled. The last commercial flight (on the Berlin-Vienna-Berlin route using a Tu-134) took place on 30 April 1991.
Following the liquidation, a group of former Interflug employees acquired five of the company's Ilyushin Il-18 airliners and set up Il-18 Air Cargo, which soon became known as Berline, operating chartered cargo and leisure flights out of Schönefeld Airport.
The three Airbus A310 purchased by Interflug in 1988 were handed over from Treuhandanstalt to the property of the Federal Republic of Germany. Henceforth, they were operated by the German Air Force, also being used for the representative VIP transport of high-ranking politicians like the German president or chancellor.
A number of Interflug aircraft have been preserved in museums.
Auf den Spuren der INTERFLUG - unterwegs in Ostdeutschland
Flights to Western countries
As a state-owned company of East Germany, Interflug had the important role to secure foreign exchanges, as the national East German mark was considered a weak currency. For most of its existence, Interflug was not a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and therefore could significantly undercut ticket prices of other European carriers. From the 1970s, an increased effort was put on operating chartered flights to Mediterranean and Black Sea holiday resorts, many of which specifically catered for West Germans (as travel restrictions applied for East Germans). From the 1970s, Interflug gained traffic rights to several destinations in Western Europe. All of these flights could be booked at travel agencies in West Berlin and West Germany, which had signed sale contracts with Interflug. To simplify the transfer from passengers from West Berlin to and from Schönefeld Airport, a dedicated border crossing checkpoint was inaugurated at Waltersdorfer Chaussee, and scheduled shuttle busses were operated from the Central Bus Terminal in the Westend locality.
By the early 1980s, the low Interflug ticket prices had resulted in a considerable impact on Berlin Tegel Airport in West Berlin, which experienced a severe decline of holiday flights. Reportedly, pilots of Pan American World Airways, which had a hub at Tegel, considered operating flights to Greece without payments, in order to allow the airline to compete with Interflug.
With Turkish Airlines, Interflug had signed an agreement, by which the two airlines were established as the only ones to offer dedicated flights for Turkish Gastarbeiter to and from West Germany and West Berlin. With KLM, Interflug set up a partnership for a joint operation on the East Berlin-Amsterdam route during the 1980s. Of the six weekly flights, two were operated by KLM's Fokker F28 Fellowships, and four by Interflug's Tu-134s and Il-62s. As neither airline was entitled to cross the intra-German border,[note 3] the KLM flights were routed via Denmark, and Interflug chose a southern routing over Czechoslovakia.
During the annual Leipzig Trade Fair, which at that time was considered the most important meeting place for businessmen and politicians on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Lufthansa and Interflug were granted special permits to operate flights between Leipzig and West Germany. In 1986, Lufthansa and Interflug applied for joint traffic rights for year-round scheduled intra-German flights over the Iron Curtain, which was initially rejected by the Western Allies (probably due to concerns that their unique market position for flights to and from Berlin might be weakened), and only granted in August 1989. As a consequence, Interflug launched flights on the Leipzig-Düsseldorf route, with Lufthansa serving Frankfurt-Leipzig. In 1990, Interflug flights from Dresden to Hamburg and Cologne were added.
Over the years, Interflug operated the following aircraft types on its commercial flights:
Accidents and incidents
On 26 July 1964, an Interflug Antonov An-2 (registered DM-SKS) crashed near Magdeburg, killing the two occupants.
To date, the Königs Wusterhausen air disaster with 156 fatalities was the worst aviation accident in Germany (at that time the second-deadliest air crash in the world, only surpassed by All Nippon Airways Flight 58). It occurred on 14 August 1972, when an Interflug Ilyushin Il-62 (registered DM-SEA) then one of the world's largest passenger jets, crashed during an emergency landing attempt near Schönefeld Airport. DM-SEA had been the first such plane operated by Interflug. Shortly into the Berlin-Burgas flight, the pilots had encountered problems with the elevators which was due to a fire in the cargo bay which destroyed part of the rear fuselage, and subsequently tried to return to the airport, ultimately sending the airplane in an uncontrolled descent.
On 1 September 1975, an Interflug Tupolev Tu-134 (registered DM-SCD) crashed during approach into Leipzig/Halle Airport, killing 27 of the 34 people on board (three crew and four passengers survived). The aircraft had been travelling from Stuttgart, West Germany to Leipzig (such flights were only operated during the Leipzig Trade Fair). It was determined that the pilots had not properly checked the height the aircraft was flying at, which led to a descent below the glide slope, ultimately colliding with an antenna mast.
On 26 March 1979, a cargo-configured Interflug Ilyushin Il-18 (registered DM-STL) overshot the runway at Luanda Airport, Angola following an engine failure during the take-off run. The aircraft broke up and erupted into flames, killing the ten people on board.
On 17 June 1989, an Interflug Ilyushin Il-62 (registered DDR-SEW) overshot the runway during a take-off attempt at Schönefeld Airport and caught fire, killing 21 of the 103 passengers that had been on the flight to Moscow (all ten crew members survived). There was one additional ground casualty. The accident was caused by a jammed rudder after a locking tab had been left in place during maintenance. When instructed to apply reverse thrust, the flight engineer mistakenly switched the engines off. Due to the anniversary of the 1953 East German uprising and the at that time tensed atmosphere within the GDR, initially an act of sabotage was suspected, which led to a delayed medical assistance for the injured.
On 22 November 1977, an Interflug Tu-134 (registered DM-SCM) was damaged beyond repair in a landing accident at Schönefeld Airport. The aircraft with 74 people on board had been on approach of the airport completing a flight from Moscow, when it crashed into the runway because of an excessive sink rate (which had occurred due to a wrong handling of the autopilot).
On 11 February 1991, Interflug's scheduled Berlin-Moscow flight was involved in a go-around incident at Sheremetyevo Airport. The captain of the Airbus A310 (registered D-AOAC) disagreed with the flight computer settings for the go-around, and the resultant opposite control inputs from the flight computer caused a total of four stalls, including one that pitched up the aircraft to 88 degrees (nearly vertical). The pilots eventually recovered control and landed the aircraft. Along with the crash of an Airbus A320 during a 1988 demonstration flight, this incident demonstrates the dangers resultant from flight crews inadvertently or deliberately countermanding the automatic safety protocols built into some modern jetliners.
On 10 March 1970, a hijacking attempt occurred on board a flight from East Berlin to Leipzig. Armed with pistols, a young husband and wife, Eckhard and Christel Wehage, demanded that the pilot to fly the Antonov An-24 – which had 15 other passengers on board – to Hanover in West Germany in an attempt to escape the Iron Curtain. The pilot claimed not to have enough fuel and the Wehages agreed to fly to Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. However, the plane returned to Schönefeld Airport instead, which prompted the Wehages to commit suicide.
A similar attempt failed during an Interflug flight from Erfurt to East Berlin on 30 January 1980.
On 20 December 1980, Flight 302 from East Berlin to Budapest became the subject of a bomb threat. En route, a hand-written notice was discovered claiming that there was a bomb hidden on board the Tupolev Tu-134, which would be triggered once the aircraft descended below 600 metres. The crew decided to divert to Poprad Airport (located at an elevation of 718 metres). There, a backpack was found which did not belong to any of the passengers. No information was released about its contents.
In popular culture
The East German TV series (watch the first episode) "Treffpunkt flughafen" - il-62 "Interflug" crew adventures was produced between 1985 and 1986. In eight episodes, it deals with the fictional crew of an Interflug Ilyushin Il-62, and their (often negative) experiences and adventures in foreign countries, which the average East German citizen could either not afford or was not allowed to travel to.
The intentional landing of a discharged Interflug Ilyushin Il-62 on a 900 metres long strip on a field in Gollenberg on 23 October 1989 received widespread media attention. The aircraft was commanded by Heinz-Dieter Kallbach and has been preserved on the scene ever since, in order to commemorate aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal.