It was a sunny day in March of 1990 when I took off from Belgrade "Surcin" airport to Toronto. Cannot remember JAT flight number (although I am sure that I still have somewhere that old airline paper ticket!), but it was DC-10 aircraft. Those were good days for JAT, also dubbed as “Joke About Time”, but known for the finest and best trained pilots and crews in the world. It was not obvious then, that it was actually counting its last days of fame. Soon, the UN economic sanctions against, what was left of the Yugoslavia, came into effect, and as the rest of economy JAT was struggling to stay alive, started renting its fleet and crew to foreign countries. Airport "Surcin" was shut down to international flights, sad but true, for at one time world class city with the world class airline, travelers were boarding buses to be driven to Budapest, Hungary (some 300 km away - or around 5 hours on the bus) or Sofia, Bulgaria (around the same distance) to fly to their destinations. The point of departure was in front of downtown hotel “Slavija”. At any time day or night, one could see groups of tired people with large suitcases, waiting to board the bus, or minibus that will take them to the place from where they will be able to fly. I was among them just one time, in September of 1993, leaving Belgrade to fly out from Budapest via Berlin, on Lufthansa flight to Toronto (with the transfer in Munich); a very long journey for the modern day aviation, especially when flying from the European capital.
It has been now 15 years since sanctions were lifted, but not much progress has been made for the national airline. Yes, it changed its logo, twice. Once to show the name “Yugoslav Airlines”, second time to hide the word “Yugoslav”, where “Y” is actually “J”, because of differences in spelling, in the word Jat.
Yes, it started flying around Europe and other international destinations, but it never flew over Atlantic again. For us who live on this side of the world it means changing the planes in one of the European hubs: London, Paris, Prague, Munich, Frankfurt, Amsterdam. The choice depends which airline has "seat sale". Some complain that passengers flying to the certain places are treated as "cattle", sent to the most uncomfortable terminals to board the aircraft that will take them to their final destination. This may be open for discussion. I personally had both experiences, and not enough flying to determine whether this is true or not. It is maybe matter of perception, but our perception is our reality.
With the loss of my country, I lost the airline, too. The airline which brought me here, now renamed “Jat Airways”, easily mistaken for “Jet Airways”, major Indian airline company. The acronym Jat still has original word in it - "Yugoslav", although the country does not exist anymore. There was some discussion about renaming it differently, but it seems that by keeping the old name, I guess the airline is clinging to the old fame. But those days are long gone by. With the old fleet, depleted assets, next to bankrupt finances, the future of the airline is unknown. We all know that Jat Airways is not the only airline in the world that is struggling, and it is in a good company of Alitalia (another national carrier that needs to be bailed out), and other, around the world airlines, which went bankrupt, or were swallowed by larger and stronger ones.
But what is the sad part of this story is not the reality that airlines are facing these days: the rise in fuel costs, more expensive airport security, more taxes and less passengers who are willing to pay astronomical airfares, the rise of low budget, low cost airlines, and growing army of very unhappy, grumpy passengers. I am sad for different reason. I not only lost the country where I was born, but I lost the airline that brought me here. I had chance to fly only one more transatlantic flight with JAT. It was in October of 1991. The time of Vukovar siege, the height of nationalistic euphoria, only few months before UN economic sanctions shut down Belgrade airport and expelled JAT from the world flying scene. JAT, as we knew it, no more. The airline we grew to love and trust gradually started disappearing from the world radar, just as the country that was her home.
Jat Airways, who knows, maybe they will fly again over mighty Atlantic, but before that they will have to replace their fleet with the newer aircraft that will be safe to fly with. Until then, next time flight to Belgrade will be a long one, exhausting one, with change of planes, going through security couple more times, boarding another plane that will bring me to the place I once called home, the place that I left flying with one of the finest airlines in the world - JAT!