Where Time Stood Still: Exploring Greece’s Abandoned International Airport
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Under the hot Mediterranean sun and behind an array of overgrown bushes, trees and tumbleweed, a sign written in both Greek and English points passengers of the past to ‘Departure Buildings’. It’s Hellenikon International Airport, the abandoned and derelict former hub airport of Athens, which is now a living example of ‘when time stood still’.
Much of the airport site is off limits to the public, but I was given special access to take a closer look at the former Greek hub.
The approach to the terminal was eerie and resembled an apocalyptic movie set, with graffiti-emblazoned decrepit structures still standing. Parts of the airport could still be distinguished as to their original purpose — entrance to the facilities, luggage storage building and the departures door.
The main terminal hall was designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC and the famed TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK Airport.
The ‘safe bag system’ advertisement was still on display, showing pricing in Greek Drachma, the currency replaced by the Euro in 2001.
Also on display was signage about how to make it from the airport to the city centre.
The unique aspect of this abandoned airport is that several aircraft of the Olympic Airways fleet are still parked on site. Sadly, they’re far from being ready to fly and are sitting there, rotting, under the hot Mediterranean sun.
Facing the Aegean sea, you can see an Olympic Airways Boeing 747-200, Boeing 727 and Boeing 737.
Olympic Airways, which later became Olympic Airlines, was the Pan Am of Greece. In 1956, the Greek State signed an agreement with Onassis — a greek business tycoon — for the exclusive use of air transport in Greece. On April 6, 1957, Olympic was born.
The airline served international routes across the globe, including the important Greece-Australia market, beginning Boeing 707 operations between Athens and Sydney twice weekly via Bangkok and Singapore.
In 1973, the death of Onassis’ son led Onassis to sell all Olympic shares to the Greek state, and he later died in 1975. Following the sale of the airline to the government, the airline’s financials started to deteriorate.
The company went on to face serious financial trouble from the 1980s, mostly due to management problems.
In an attempt to make Olympic profitable, the airline was managed as a subsidiary of British Airways. The result was even larger debts and rising losses. After a steady removal of the long-haul fleet, in early 2009, Olympic Airlines ceased operations. And while the brand lives on as ‘Olympic Air’ today (as a regional subsidiary of Aegean Airlines), the airline is no more.
Now, the abandoned jets at the former Athens airport still wear the six Olympic rings in their full livery.
Valuable aircraft parts, including the engines, were removed prior to storing these long-haul birds at Hellinikon.
Despite the lack of care, the 747 still looks as impressive as ever — and its condition doesn’t appear too bad, despite the lack of any TLC.
This Olympic 747, registered as SX-OAB, first flew in 1973 — making it more than 45 years old. It was transferred over to Aerolineas Argentinas for a few years, before returning to Greece to continue flying for Olympic Air under the name Olympic Eagle.
Stored near the 747 was an abandoned Hellenic Air BAC One-Eleven. Like its 747 neighbour, the aircraft also had its engines and other valuable parts stripped from it.
On the taxiway, you could see remnants of what operations looked like when the airport closed — where time really does stand still. For example, a stack of inflight magazines that were ready to be loaded on to an Olympic jet can be seen heat-worn on the tarmac.
From what I could see, the main terminal buildings were the most-damaged areas of the airport site.
However, inside the terminal, original stickers for British Airways ‘Euro Traveller’ and ‘Club Europe’ check-in were still visible. British Airways flew a variety of aircraft to Athens, including the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar 100, which flew to Hellinikon during the late-80s.
Still standing tall was the air traffic control tower, which once controlled the busy flow of aircraft departing and arriving at Hellinikon.
The Olympic terminal still retained its original sign with 2001 — the year the airport closed its doors for the last time — signage still shown above it.
If you’re driving around this area south of Athens, you may be surprised to discover that the old terminal is still sign-posted, including for international, domestic and arrivals halls.
This visit was a unique experience, and it’s hard to believe that this derelict, vast site was once a prominent player in the Golden Age of flying.
Do you have any memories of Greece’s former airport hub?
Photos courtesy of Alex Macheras.