Where Time Stood Still: Exploring Athens’ Abandoned International Airport

Aug 16, 2019

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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”. But no one is departing. Or arriving. This is Hellinikon International Airport, the abandoned former airport of Athens, which is now frozen in time to almost two decades ago.

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 hub of Olympic Airways.

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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— entrance to the facilities, luggage storage building and the departures door.

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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” ad was still on display, showing pricing in Greek drachmas, which stopped circulating in 2002, replaced by the euro.

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Also on display was signage about how to make it from the airport to the city.
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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 sun.

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Facing the Aegean sea, you can see an Olympic Airways Boeing 747-200, Boeing 727 and Boeing 737.

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Olympic Airways, which later became Olympic Airlines, was the Pan Am of Greece. In 1956, the Greek government sold the airline to Aristotle Onassis, the shipping tycoon and later husband of Jackie Kennedy, tce. 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, Onassis sold the airline to the Greek state. Following the sale of the airline to the government, financials started to deteriorate.

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The company went on to face serious financial trouble from the 1980s, mostly due to management problems. Olympic eventually ceased operations in 2009. 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.

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Valuable aircraft parts, including the engines, were removed prior to storing at Hellinikon.

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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.

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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, bearing the name Olympic Eagle.

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Stored near the 747 was an abandoned Hellenic Air BAC One-Eleven. Like its 747 neighbor, the aircraft also had its engines and other valuable parts stripped from it.

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On the taxiway, you could see remnants of what operations looked like when the airport closed. 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.

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From what I could see, the main terminal buildings were the most damaged areas of the airport site.

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However, inside the terminal, original stickers for British Airways Euro Traveller and Club Europe check-in — economy and business class respectively — were still visible. British Airways flew a variety of aircraft to Athens, including the now-retired Lockheed Tristar, which flew to Hellinikon during the late 1980s.

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Still standing tall was the air traffic control tower, which once controlled the busy flow of aircraft departing and arriving at Hellinikon.

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The Olympic terminal still retained its original sign with 2001 — the year the airport closed its doors for the last time — still showing.

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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.

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This visit was a unique experience, and it’s hard to believe that this derelict, vast site was once a prominent player among world airports. Athens has, of course, a new airport, which retains the ATH three-letter code.

All photos by the author.

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