Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2017/1 posted by hidden europe on

Short hops by air over water are of course very common, generally relying on non-jet aircraft and providing lifeline air services to island communities around the coasts of Europe. A review of old airline timetables reveals that there used to be many more such services, including many very short hops across lakes or estuaries. We take a look at some of them.

article summary —

Who would have thought that an airline called People's Viennaline would exist today? The name suggests just the sort of aviation venture which might have been dreamt up in the early 1950s when Austria was still occupied by the Allies, with the Soviet Union firmly in control of much of eastern Austria.

"People's Viennaline: connecting the Austrian capital with socialist republics across eastern Europe."

It has just that sort of ring, doesn't it?

Jetting over Lake Constance

People's Viennaline turns out to be based in Switzerland. It was created seven year ago by the owner of the small airport at Altenrhein, very close to the Austrian border on the south side of Lake Constance. Altenrhein hasn't been very successful at attracting scheduled flights, so the airport owner set up an air carrier to serve Altenrhein airport.

This winter, People's Viennaline is offering flights to Vienna (predictably) as well as to Cologne and Friedrichshafen. The latter is just 20 kilometres away on the other bank of Lake Constance. With a one-way fare of €40 for a 10-minute flight, this link probably won't appeal to those with proletarian instincts and it's certainly raised a few eyebrows in the environmental lobby.

In fairness, the airline argues that it never really conceived of the short hop over the lake as a viable route in its own right. The 80-seat Embraer 170 aircraft used on the route picks up passengers at both Altenrhein and Friedrichshafen before flying north to Cologne. But it is possible to book just for the initial sector over the lake making it, we think, Europe's shortest international air route served by jet aircraft. We would be interested in hearing from readers who can identify any international sectors on jet aircraft which are even shorter.

Lifeline links

Short hops by air over water are of course very common, generally relying on non-jet aircraft and providing lifeline air services to island communities around the coasts of Europe. Thus the rhythm of life on the Hebridean island of Barra is still regulated by the daily arrival of the Twin Otter from Glasgow which lands on the beach at Barra.

Bridging the Thames

A review of old airline timetables - yes, we do have a small collection - reveals that there used to be many more such services, including many very short hops across lakes or estuaries. In June 1934, the new airport at Rochester in Kent (on the south side of the Thames Estuary) secured its first scheduled flights. The airport's debut route was to Southend, just 30 km away on the Essex coast of the Thames Estuary. There were four flights each day, with a scheduled flight time of 15 minutes. Passengers paid a fare of eight shillings single or twelve shillings return. There was an echo of this former service pattern in the very occasional scheduled flights from Southend to Manston (also in Kent) which survived into the 1990s.

Continental connections

Nobody today would dream of offering a commercial air service linking communities along the Dutch coast. But, prior to the major engineering works of the 1950s with the construction of new dykes and dams, communications between Zeeland and Holland were often difficult. So before the Second World War, the Dutch airline KLM offered a twice-daily flight from Vlissingen (Flushing) to Amsterdam. The 140-km journey took 90 minutes, with two intermediate stops along the way - at Haamstede and Rotterdam. In those days, there was also a seasonal air service from Amsterdam to Groningen, flying over the Zuiderzee, then an North Sea inlet but nowadays tamed and slowly being turned into new land for agriculture and settlement.

Other interesting pre-war flights over short stretches of water included the regular afternoon departure from Venice to Pula at the tip of the Istrian Peninsula. The plane continued to Rijeka - then more commonly known by its Italian name of Fiume - where it overnighted before flying back to Venice via Pula the following morning.

Over the water

An estuary was so often a prompt for an innovative air service. In Britain, Great Western Railway (GWR) ran its trains west from London and to both Devon and South Wales. But communications between those two provincial markets were hindered by the Bristol Channel. So in April 1933, GWR became the first rail company in Britain to take to the skies when it introduced an air link between Cardiff and Haldon Aerodrome in Devon. The route was operated by high-wing Westland Wessex aircraft, so passengers were treated to fine views of the coast on a clear day. The plane continued beyond Haldon to Plymouth, before returning to Cardiff.

In the last century, prior to the opening of the Øresund Bridge linking Denmark and Sweden, there were air services linking Copenhagen with Malmö. The two cities are just 25 kilometres apart. Our 1983 timetable shows that SAS allowed 25 minutes for this short sector. Most of that time was presumably spent on the ground at either end taxiing to and from the runways. Intriguingly, SAS offered a choice of economy and first-class fares on the route, so one wonders quite what perks were offered in first class.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.