What becomes of a national icon?

I can’t quite recall when I sat foot on an Austrian Airlines plane for the first time. I do remember distinctly though that Niki Lauda himself piloted the Lauda Air plane that took me and my classmates to the Greek island of Kos in the summer of 1998 for our “Maturareise”, a class trip you commonly take after graduation from high school. In those pre-9/11 times we joked that we should just walk up to the cockpit door and knock to have a look over the shoulder of the 3-time formula one champion-become-airline-owner.

Lauda Air eventually became a subsidiary of the bigger, national rival Austrian Airlines, or AUA, as she is colloquially called. While Austrian always had a solid reputation for it’s service, Lauda Air made customer focus it’s trademark. “Service is our success”, driven by Lauda and lived by his staff (which earned less money working for the known to be frugal former race-car driver than their colleagues at Austrian), was what differentiated it from many other airlines.

In any case, Austrian’s reputation was solid, with friendly service and great food. The books however did not paint such a rosy picture and so, after a lot of years of mismanagement and suffering the consequences of too much political influence (since it was majority-owned by the state) partner Lufthansa eventually acquired majority shareholder rights and, consequentially, the airline at the end of 2008.

The question was: What would become of Austrian after being brought into the Lufthansa Group? The Germans promised to keep the name, but what else? Would Austrian nationals be served their “Schnitzel” on board by flight attendants from Leipzig? Would their slogan change to “Austrian Airlines – operated by Germans (because Austrians are incapable of doing so)”?

None of that has happened. Yet. But patriotic as I am, I am still looking forward to flying Austrian, since it does invoke some homelike emotions, some sort of connection with where I am from.

And so I found myself on flight OS087 (OS being the IATA airline designator for Austrian) from Vienna International Airport to JFK on a chilly winter morning at the end of December. I had spent Christmas with my parents before heading back to California to resume work in the New Year. For the first time, I had opted to shell out a bit more money into the experience of a long-haul flight and went for business class for the approximately 13 to 14 hours of flight time.

A few hours into the flight on the quite dated Boeing 767-300ER, I decided to stretch my legs. I was tired of reading my book and not in the mood for watching the latest Ice Age installment on the overhead TV, so I started chatting with one of the flight attendants. They did not seem to be busy at the moment anyways, lunch was served and apart from the occasional calls for more water or a blanket, there weren’t many other duties (as far as I could tell) for them to attend to.

Robert S., about 6-1, short blonde hair, sporting the standard red/white uniform with silver tie, would certainly qualify for the desired-son-in-law category. Personally I thought he presented a slightly gay-ish demeanor, which might only be a testament to me being jealous of his, frankly, good looks. “I am flying on what’s left of AUA”, he responded to my question whether he serves on this route frequently. An attendant for 15 years, the Styria-native still, despite cuts of long-distance destinations like Melbourne, Tokyo and Bangkok, projected a love-for-the-job attitude, genuinely liking what he does.

The interior of the plane could have been installed when he had started working. The seats in business class sported fake wooden panels and purple covers, which only would have looked futuristic if I had suddenly found myself in 1970. Mine also had an add-on—namely a chewing gum someone had disposed off and stuck underneath the tray in the middle console. “We had to switch planes in the morning because the other one, with the newer, upgraded seat configuration, wasn’t ready in time”, Robert noted apologetic.

“How long do you get to stay in New York?”, I asked, trying to get a glimpse into the daily routine of a flight attendant.

“Oh, we are heading back tomorrow. Gone are the good old days where the crew got to stay longer. I am not sure that is good or bad. There is always stuff to do in New York, but with other destinations, once you have been there fifty times, you are kinda glad to get back sooner.”

Just as I had expected it, the in-flight service was impeccable. And from my experience on other Austrian flights when I was flying coach, that wasn’t just because I flew in the more expensive class. They were friendly, attentive and, what I liked most, genuinely so. They had their own chef on board and offered local specialties like Tafelspitz on the menu. It was details like a personal care-kit, which many airlines provide you with in business class on long distance flights, reminiscent of the Austrian Tracht and a chance to order a particular style of Viennese coffee (like a Melange or a Grosser Brauner) made to order, that emphasized the airlines effort to make the service a true example of Austrian culture and hospitality. Luckily, that hasn’t changed over the years.

So what lies ahead for Austrian? Will it be relegated to serving Eastern European destinations exclusively from their hub in Vienna (which they had done quite successfully in the past)? Recent news do paint a different picture with the reinstatement of Chicago O’Hare as a destination with a direct route from Vienna scheduled to commence in May 2013. Rumors are circulating that Los Angeles and Newark are to be added to the list, pending acquisition of additional Boeing 777 aircraft by mother Lufthansa.

The landing in JFK was a little rougher than expected, but after a lengthy search for our parking spot, I finally stepped off the aircraft and, by doing so, symbolically bid farewell to my home country for the next few months.

“Have a good onward journey!”, Robert wished me as I made my way to the front exit. “Thanks!”, I responded, wholeheartedly wishing the same for his employer.

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