What Happened To Spanish Airline Spantax?

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Once a major contribution to the development of Spanish tourism, leisure carrier Spantax ceased operations in March 1998, stranding 7,000 passengers. A new owner’s attempts to revamp the airline were not enough to save it from intense charter market competition, a series of fatal accidents, and a highly ill-timed strike.

Spantax aircraft
What became of Spanish leisure carrier Spantax? Photo: Getty Images

From oil prospecting to charter

Spanish leisure specialist Spantax began life as Spanish Air Taxis on October 6th, 1959. It was founded by an Iberia pilot – Captain Rodolfo Bay – and one of the airline’s flight attendants – Marta Estades. Operations began with a fleet of seven British-made turboprops – three Airspeed Consuls, two Airspeed Oxfords, one Auster, and one Avro Anson.

Based out of Gran Canaria, it flew charter traffic for geologists exploring oil opportunities in the Sahara and the former Spanish colonies of West Africa. The airline was renamed Spantax in 1963 when it began growing rapidly and flying to other European countries.

It continued to operate a variety of DC-3s, DC-4s, and larger capacity DC-7Cs along with a range of smaller turboprop aircraft before entering the jet age in 1967. From 1961 to 1966, the number of flights grew from 1,199 to 20,877 and the number of passengers from 14,181 to 691,222.

Spantax acquired ten of American Airlines’ old Convair 990s. Photo: Richard Vandervord via Wikimedia

Move to Mallorca and the Convair 990

Spantax then purchased two second-hand Convair 990 from American Airlines. It later added another 14 of the four-engined jets – eight from American, and four from Swissair. For a time, this made it the world’s largest operator of the model. By then, the airline had moved its base to Palma de Mallorca. This allowed it to profit from the booming charter tourism to Spain from other parts of Europe.

Twenty years following its inception, Spantax employed over 1,100 people and carried over two million passengers. It was the first-ever Spanish airline to fly to Japan via the Polar Route, with a stop in Anchorage in 1983. The same year the carrier took delivery of the first of eight Boeing 737-200s. So what happened to make it cease operations in 1988?

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The 1970s crashes

Spantax suffered several high-profile crashes over the years. Three of these happened with its Convair 990s. The first took place in Stockholm in 1970. Thankfully, most passengers had been deplaned due to an engine issue, but five out of the ten people onboard what was to be a maintenance ferry flight died.

The second Convair crashed while taking off from Tenerife for Munich in poor visibility in 1972. The casualties were far higher, with 155 people dead. Another of Spantax’s Convair’s collided with an Iberia DC-9 in mid-air, causing the latter to crash, killing all 68 passengers and crew onboard.

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The airline had grown rapidly in the 1960s, but the 70s and 80s saw it suffer a series of lethal crashes. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia

The Malaga crash and the 1986 strike

Horrific as these accidents may have been, Spantax remained in good financial health throughout the 1970s. It purchased its first widebody aircraft – a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in 1978 and began operating charter services to the US.

However, the first of what was to be five DC-10 jets jet did not last long. It was written off following an accident in 1982. A nose gear wheel burst during take-off from Malaga to New York. This caused the pilot to abort and the fully-fueled plane to overshoot the runway and catch fire. The incident killed 50 people and injured another 110.

By then, Spantax was already struggling financially. Competition in the European charter market was fierce, and the Malaga crash did nothing to endear the airline to the public. Furthermore, in 1986, the airline’s cockpit and maintenance crews went on strike right in the middle of the summer season. Replacement crew and aircraft had to be recruited at huge expenses.

In April 1987, Spantax was sold to Luxembourg-based Aviation Finance Group. Debts to the Spanish government were reorganized, and a fleet renewal plan was put into place, including the lease of two McDonnell Douglas MD-83s. However, it was not enough to save the ailing carrier.

On March 29th, 1988, the airline collapsed, leaving around 7,000 passengers stranded and a piece of Spanish aviation history behind in its wake.

Did you ever travel with Spantax? Let us know in the comments. 

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