The Rise And Fall Of Varig – Latin America’s Largest 747 Operator

Once upon a time, Varig Airlines was a household name in South American aviation. For Brazil, it was as big a deal as Mexicana was for Mexico or Pan Am for the US. It was the largest B747 operator in the region and flew to now-forgotten destinations (for Latin American airlines) like Bangkok and Cote D’Ivoire. Nevertheless, like both of these carriers, it disappeared. Why? Let’s check out its history.

Varig 747
Varig was the largest airline in South America. It was founded in 1927. Photo: MilborneOne via Wikimedia Commons.

The origins of Varig

The German aviator Otto Ernst Meyer-Labastille founded Varig in 1927. It was one of the oldest carriers in Latin America, along with Avianca, Mexicana, and Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano. The first plane of the Brazilian airline was a Dornier Wal, with a capacity of nine passengers. Likewise, the first route linked Porto Alegre, Pelotas, and Rio Grande.

Soon enough, Varig’s fleet grew bigger, as the airline bought one Dornier Merkur and two Klemm L-25. The latter aircraft was used to transport mailbag.

During those first years, aviation was opening new territories – or routes in the skies. So, how did the pilots of Varig guide themselves through the Brazilian territory? They knew they were flying the correct path when the animals on the ground were not frightened by the engine’s noise as they had heard that sound before. However, when the animals ran, the pilots rerouted.

Varig was one of the two Brazilian airlines at the time with German origins. The second one was Syndicato Condor, which was later rebranded as Serviços Aéreos Cruzeiro do Sul.

For the first 20 years of its history, Varig’s had deep ties with Germany. Nevertheless, that changed when Brazil entered the Second World War. The company had to cut its relationship with Germany and the founder Otto Meyer left the company. The airline also replaced its Junkers fleet with American Douglas DC-3.

Varig DC-3
During the Second World War, Varig acquired the new American jet, the DC-3. Photo: Christian Volpati via Wikimedia Commons.

The era of expansion

In the fifties, Varig started flying internationally. On 30 June 1953, it launched its first flights to Buenos Aires with the route Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo-Porto Alegre-Montevideo-Buenos Aires. During the same year, it got authorization to fly to the US. In 1955 it flew the route Rio de Janeiro-New York with a four-engine Lockheed Super G Constellation and then with a Caravelle. Varig was taking off, as in 1957, it ordered its firsts Boeing 707 jets.

In the next decade, Varig expanded its international reach, landing in Lima, Bogota, Caracas, Miami, and Los Angeles. The airline also flew to Mexico. Subsequently, it acquired Boeing 707-300 and Douglas DC-8-33 aircraft and flew to Europe. According to Varig’s website, it was the only airline in the world to operate the three first-generation US jets, which were the Boeing 707, Convair 990, and Douglas DC-8. By the end of the sixties, the operator flew to Tokyo.

Varig Douglas
Varig operated the Boeing 707, Convair 990, and Douglas DC-8; it was the only airline worldwide to do so. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons.

The ‘Queen of the Skies’ era

The 1970s is the golden age of Varig. It continued both its domestic and international expansion. During that decade, the airline flew a Rio de Janeiro-Luanda-Johannesburg route. At some point, its fleet was of over almost 100 aircraft. It was acknowledged as the largest private airline in the world outside of the US.

In 1981, Varig bought its first Boeing 747-200. It was deployed on the route between Rio de Janeiro and New York. That same year, it also acquired an Airbus A300. In 1985, the Brazilian airline received two more Boeing 747s. In the 1990s, Varig had, at one point, 11 jumbos simultaneously.

During the 1980s, Varig peaked. At one point, it connected 42 foreign cities in 33 countries. Yearly, it averaged 14.21 million passengers. Also, it helped to launch Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo as a major hub in South America. It transferred its operations from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo in 1988.

Varig B737
Varig ceased operations in 2006 after many years of financial arrears. Photo: SBPA – Porto Alegre (Salgado Filho) via Wikimedia Commons.

The last two decades of Varig

In 1994, Varig launched its loyalty program, Smiles. This program is the first hint as to where Varig was heading. Brazil deregulated the air sector in the 1990s, which allowed new competitors in the international market.

Varig eliminated a few international routes off its map, like flights to Africa, Canada, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean. It also operated its last 747 flight in 1999, after almost 20 years of service. The airline replaced the Queen of the Skies with the MD-11.

In the 2000s, Varig faced many financial arrears. In 2002, it was the largest airline in Latin America but had a debt of US$118 million. There was no way out of this hole. The carrier filed for bankruptcy in 2005, and by 2006 it ran out of money. In July 2006, it had a fleet of 10 aircraft and seven destinations.

That same month, the Brazilian outfit was divided into two companies and auctioned. In 2007, GOL Linhas Aereas acquired one of the two Varigs and quickly dropped the brand. Finally, on August 20th, 2010, the Brazilian Government declared bankruptcy of its oldest carrier. On a side note, another historical Latin American airline, Mexicana de Aviación, ceased its operations eight days later.

Did you ever travel with Varig? How was it? Let us know in the comments.