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TAROM is Still Alive, and It’s On the Right Path

Why the heck am I writing about TAROM, you ask? Good question. In a lot of ways, TAROM, the national airline of Romania, is your typical small European flag carrier. It had grand plans, lost a ton of money, and now is looking for comfort under one of the big three (in this case, Air France/KLM). And that’s what it should be doing. But I’m really writing about this, because, well, I was asked to. The gauntlet was thrown down, and I’m not one to back away. Can I make a post about TAROM interesting? Let’s see.

Let’s start with the basics. This is Romania:

Romania

My worldly readers may scoff at the need to throw a map out there, but my guess is that most Americans couldn’t find it. (I mean, most Americans can’t find Iowa, so it’s a safe bet.) As you can probably figure out, Romania was firmly behind the Iron Curtain. (Pay attention, kids. Back when the Soviets were our mortal enemies, the Iron Curtain was the western extent of their political influence into Europe.) So it won’t surprise you to know that most of TAROM’s history is filled with old Soviet aircraft.

The airline was actually started as a joint venture between the Soviets and the Romanians after World War II. In 1954, the Romanians bought out the Russians to make it their own. But in reality, nothing was their own. It was still under heavy Russian influence.

From there, the airline’s trajectory followed that of many others. It started by growing its European operation and then, in the 1970s, decided to plant the flag by flying regular service to New York. Throw in some far east and middle east destinations and you’ve got your typical small-country European airline at the time.

One of the more interesting things about TAROM is that it operated a fleet of BAC 1-11s. How the heck did that happen? Well, in one of the more spectacular failures in aircraft manufacturing, Romania’s government decided to effectively buy the BAC 1-11 production line and move it to Bucharest. Seriously. The BAC 1-11 was first delivered in the mid-1960s, but it was running out of steam in the late 1970s. So, Romania had grand plans and brought the production of the soon-to-be-restyled ROMBAC 1-11 to Romania.

The expectation was for up to 80 airplanes to be built. Wanna guess how close they got? Nine. That’s right. A total of nine airplanes were finished with another two that never quite made it that far. Want to guess where the vast majority of those 1-11s went? TAROM. By the 1980s when they were going into service, they were obsolete, however. Good times.

Once communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe, TAROM, like other airlines in the region, was faced with one question. What the heck do we do now? Every Eastern European country was trying to find its place, and that usually meant nationalism was strong. The airlines were there to fly the flag around the world, usually regardless of economic relevance.

If you’re in TAROM in the early 1990s, where do you go? How about Montreal and Bangkok. I mean, can you imagine Montreal to Bucharest being a barn-burner? Yikes. But hey, it happened . . . for a year or two.

Mercifully, over the next 10 years, TAROM realized that long haul operations just simply weren’t going to work. The last long haul destination, the all-important New York market, went away in 2003. Not coincidentally, TAROM finally made a profit in 2004.

In the last decade, TAROM did what every small-country European airline should do. It learned its place. There’s not enough demand from most of these places to justify long haul nonstop service. Even Delta’s attempt at Bucharest service failed, and today you won’t see any flights out of Europe from Bucharest except for the Middle East.

TAROM at the SkyTeam Teat

At the same time, the low cost carriers began their assault. Blue Air is one that’s actually based in Romania and has grown rapidly. There’s also the hilariously-named Wizz Air growing around the country. Even easyJet and Ryanair fly around the edges, putting the squeeze on TAROM. So how could TAROM survive?

There’s no other option. TAROM had to go for the business traveler crowd. The low cost carriers in Europe have generally gone for the low frequency, no frills type of operation. That means business travelers aren’t well-served. But business travelers need to travel all over with ease, so TAROM did what any smart airline would do – align itself with one of the big three in Europe.

For TAROM, it went with Air France. This has now blown into a full-blown relationship where TAROM adopted the Flying Blue frequent flier program and has now become a full member of SkyTeam. With this move, TAROM can bring Romanians all over the world and it can benefit from those elsewhere in the world who come to Romania. It is, effectively, a regional specialist, focusing on moving people from around Eastern Europe and the Middle East into Bucharest where it can now funnel them into the global SkyTeam network. That’s a good thing.

This doesn’t mean that TAROM is completely out of the woods. It still has an oddball fleet with two old A310s and a few of the black sheep A318s to complement its 737s and ATRs, but I’m sure that can be worked out eventually. I wouldn’t be surprise to see TAROM one day become a subsidiary of Air France, just as others around Europe have done under Lufthansa.

But for now, TAROM is on its own, just hiding under the wing of Air France. Other national carriers in similar situations should probably follow this model if they hope to survive.

[Original photo via Flickr user slasher-fun]

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