TAE National Greek Airlines, was formed by the Greek government in 1951 to be the national airline of Greece. The airline operated until 1956 when economic difficulties force the government to seek a private sector suitor to take over the state-run air transport industry.
On July 30, 1956, Aristotle Onassis signed a contract granting him the operational rights to the airline. His intention all along was to rename the carrier Olympic Airways and use the five Olympic rings as the main logo.
When Onassis heard during the negotiations that he would not be able to use the five Olympic rings due to copyright issues, he simply decided to add a sixth ring.
Operations began in 1957, with one DC-4, two DC-6s and 13 DC-3s. Each following year saw 244,000 passengers transported. The agreement lasted until December 10, 1974, when a number of factors (namely, a series of strikes, shortage of passengers, fuel price increase, and a law from the new Greek government forbidding Olympic Airways to fire employees) led Onassis to terminate his contract.
Paul Ioannidis, a high-ranking director from Olympic Airways, said “Deep down, [he] did not want to relinquish Olympic Airways. He found it flattering to own an airline. It was something in which he took deep pride. It was his accomplishment. He was married to the sea, but Olympic was his mistress. We used to say that he would spend all the money he made at sea with his mistress in the sky.”
Onassis’s time at the head of Olympic Airways is known as a golden era of the airline, stemming from his personal interest and the financial investments he made in training and the acquisition of cutting-edge technology.
Onassis was also renowned for his attention to service quality, which led him to buy gold-plated utensils and candles for the dining service of the first-class section.
During 1974, the last year of Onassis’s involvement with the company, Olympic Airways transported 2.5 million passengers and had a work force of 7,356 persons. At the time, his ownership of Olympic Airways distinguished Onassis as one of only two men in the world to own a private airline, the other being Howard Hughes of TWA.