Connecting Portugal To The World: The History Of TAP Air Portugal

While 2020 was a challenging year for airlines worldwide, it did see TAP Air Portugal reach 75 years since its foundation. The carrier has been connecting its country to the world since March 1945, using its location in western Europe to its advantage. Now a key member of the Star Alliance, TAP currently flies 75 aircraft to destinations worldwide.

TAP Air Portugal Airbus A330-941 CS-TUA
TAP is known for having launched the Airbus A330neo. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

After its foundation in March 1945, TAP commenced operations 18 months later, in September 1946. Initially flying a pair of Douglas DC-3s to neighboring Spain, it later diversified to offer domestic and long-haul flights alongside its initial short-haul offering. TAP entered the jet age in the 1960s, and, since 2005, it has also been a Star Alliance member.

An initial two-aircraft fleet

TAP’s first flight took place on September 19th, 1946, when it took 11 passengers from Lisbon to Madrid. It did so on a Douglas DC-3, one of two examples in its initial fleet. Following their extensive use in the Second World War, there was a surplus of DC-3s in the postwar era. However, the type soon became outdated, and TAP moved onto the DC-4.

TAP purchased four examples of the DC-4 in 1947. By this time, it had already established its first intercontinental service. Known as the Imperial route, it served Portuguese colonies in Africa, including Luanda (Angola) and Maputo (Mozambique). 1947 also saw the launch of domestic services between Lisbon and Porto, which is a key route for TAP today.

TAP Air Portugal Douglas DC-4
TAP deployed the DC-4 on key European and African routes. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Growth and privatization in the 1950s

TAP began life as a state-owned company. However, having operated under the Portuguese Civil Aviation Office’s jurisdiction for seven years, it underwent privatization as a limited company in 1953. This kickstarted a successful remainder of the decade for TAP. Indeed, that year also saw it introduce services on key North African routes to Casablanca and Tangier.

One of the stars of TAP’s early fleet was the Lockheed L-1049 ‘Super Constellation.’ This pressurized piston-engined airliner revolutionized the airline’s early African routes, and was faster than earlier aircraft. It introduced the L-1049 in 1955, which was also the same year that it first flew to Rio de Janeiro. Rio became a regular destination in 1960.

Lockheed Super Constellation
The Lockheed Super Constellation had both civilian and military (pictured) operators. For TAP, it was one of the airline’s defining pre-jet age aircraft. Photo: Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons

Into the jet age

The 1960s heralded the advent of the jet age, a time that saw widespread technological and social change. TAP cashed in on this zeitgeist at the start of the decade, when it acquired three examples of the Sud Aviation SE 210 ‘Caravelle.’ This rear-engined twinjet saw service on TAP’s key European routes, and represented the shape of things to come.

The rest of this decade continued in celebratory fashion, with the airline carrying its millionth passenger in June 1964. A year later, TAP began diversifying its jet fleet with the introduction of US-built Boeing designs. The first of these was the four-engine 707, which came onboard in 1965. By 1967, it had also been joined by the short-haul 727 trijet.

TAP Air Portugal Sud Aviation Caravelle
TAP’s first jetliner was the Sud Aviation SE 210 ‘Caravelle.’ Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons

By this time, TAP had become Europe’s first all-jet airline. However, it also had reasons to celebrate in terms of its network. Using the aforementioned Boeing 707, it had inaugurated its first exclusive route to Rio de Janeiro in 1966. While it had begun serving the Brazilian city in 1960, it had previously been doing so in co-operation with Panair and Varig.

Moving into the 1970s, it didn’t take long for TAP to begin adding widebody aircraft to its growing all-jet fleet. February 1972 marked the delivery of its first Boeing 747-200B, and TAP went on to operate four examples of the type. Their arrivals followed an expansion of TAP’s US route portfolio, which included services to Boston and New York.

TAP Air Portugal Boeing 747
TAP flew four 747-200Bs between 1972 and 1984. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons

Nationalized once again

The mid-1970s represented a time of upheaval not just for TAP, but the Portuguese-speaking world as a whole. Several key Portuguese companies underwent nationalization processes following the Carnation Revolution in April 1974, with TAP being one of them. It officially became a state-owned enterprise once again in 1975.

It was also around this time that Angola and Mozambique gained independence from Portugal. This lessened the importance of the African market to TAP, which subsequently had to sell two of its four 747s due to the resultant drop in demand. By the end of the decade, it had adopted its current internationally recognizable TAP Air Portugal name.

TAP Air Portugal Lockheed L-1011 TriStar
When TAP renewed its jet fleet, it began flying the TriStar. Photo: Felix Goetting via Wikimedia Commons

New aircraft and destinations

Now operating as a state-owned company once again, TAP marked several key milestones in the 1980s. For example, 1981 saw the airline hire its first female pilot, as well as launching a  magazine known as Atlantis. It opened a museum to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 1985, which was also the first year in which it carried more than two million passengers.

At this time, TAP also began renewing and modernizing its fleet. As seen above, it acquired Lockheed L-1011 ‘Tristars’ and Airbus A310s to replace its Boeing 707s and 747s. In terms of narrowbodies, it introduced the Boeing 737 in 1983. Older examples of these, along with the 727, were replaced with Airbus A320 family jets by the end of the century.

Moving into the 1990s, TAP’s route network saw several interesting developments. As well as flying to the likes of Boston (via the Azores) and Tel Aviv, TAP also targeted leisure destinations like Bangkok and Punta Cana. This decade also saw the airline form partnerships with Delta Air Lines and Swissair. But what is its current state of affairs?

TAP Air Portugal Airbus A321LR
TAP has begun using the Airbus A321LR on lower-demand long-haul routes. Photo: Airbus

TAP in the 21st century

During the 21st century, TAP has further established itself as a well-connected carrier with a strong intercontinental presence. A key factor in this development has been its Star Alliance membership. It joined the group in March 2005, on the 60th anniversary of its foundation, which resulted in the end of its aforementioned partnership with Delta Air Lines.

TAP presently flies an all-Airbus jet fleet consisting of 75 aircraft. Meanwhile, its regional brand, TAP Express, feeds into the main network, with White Airways and Portugália Airlines operating these flights on its behalf. Having been reprivatized and renationalized again since the start of the century, it now finds itself under state ownership once more.

TAP Air Portugal Airbus A330-941 CS-TUB
TAP offers useful North America-Europe connections via Lisbon. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

TAP is becoming a popular choice on transatlantic services. Its use of the Airbus A321LR has allowed it to explore ‘long thin’ routes, while it has made use of the A330neo on new services to the likes of Cancun. Now also offering Portuguese stopovers as part of connecting long-haul itineraries, TAP will surely be a key transatlantic player for years to come.

Are you a fan of TAP? What are your best memories of flying with the Portuguese flag carrier? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!