What went wrong? Two things, Covid-19 and the TAP call centre which seemed to collapse and left many passengers very unhappy.

TAP has been through some challenging times, not least with the EU ‘open skies’ policy and the loss of ‘monopoly’ of routes. The new low cost airlines were hurting the companies profitability. TAP looked to have turned a corner under new ownership. In June 2015, the Portuguese Government decided to sell the TAP Air Portugal Group, owner of the national air carrier to the Gateway consortium with David Neeleman in partnership with Humberto Pedrosa who took control of 61 percent of the capital of the Portuguese carrier.

David Neeleman modernised the airlines fleet by ordering over 50 new Airbus jet aircraft, added a number of new European destinations and increased its trans-Atlantic expansion plans, focusing on North America rather than its traditional core market of Brazil. As a passenger I noticed quite a few subtle changes and service upgrades. It’s worth remembering that TAP was Europe's first all-jet commercial fleet, but much of the fleet had aged more than the normal life span of a flag carrier airline.

The deal with Gateway caused a lot of political and union upheaval and in 2020 the state took back a controlling stake in TAP. There were rumours of Lufthansa becoming a shareholder, but this didn’t come to fruition. A national flag carrier airline is, at best, a political ‘hot potato’.

Then Covid-19 struck

TAP was not going through a particularly strong phase when Covid-19 struck. The airline crisis was not restricted to just TAP, but some were financially stronger than others. The low-cost airlines were hurting ‘flag carrier’ airlines before Covid. Covid was almost a death sentence for many major airlines. What fights could be operated were, but drastically cut. From our many people it’s clear few, if any, had problems with the flights, but the call centre totally collapsed, and passengers were left with unanswered calls or ridiculously long waits. When you did get an answer you were frequently cut off or told to hold. Refunds were few and passenger frustration was at fever pitch.

I renewed my TAP Miles and Go card in January last year. I paid the annual fee on my credit card. Despite that, by simply downloading the TAP form that gave the opportunity to pay monthly instead of annually, TAP set up a direct debit on my account, I hadn’t signed anything, just downloaded the form to look at. I was being charged twice, but despite endless phone calls and emails, TAP denied what they had done, until I proved it, and then did nothing. Hours wasted on the phone, all to no avail. I had to get my bank to cancel the direct debit. TAP would neither refund nor resolve. Does that leave a regular passenger happy, no! I totally sympathise with people who have found the TAP customer service line worse than useless.

It’s worth noting that it wasn’t just TAP suffering these problems, airlines worldwide, nationalised and private, were struggling to survive, failing to refund passengers, not making refunds, cancelling flights at a moment’s notice and failing to care for their passengers. TAP were no more guilty of all this that most other airlines, which is no excuse but something to bear in mind.

History of TAP

TAP Air Portugal was created on March 14, 1945 with the original name of Transportes Aéreos Portugueses. TAP was not Portugal's first airline; Aero Portuguesa, half owned by Air France until 1943, had been created before the war. It flew a single route to Tangier until it was closed down in 1953.

TAP was only nationalised in 1975. Boeing 727 airliners entered its fleet the same year. In 1976, TAP began flying to Caracas, Venezuela, and Milan, Italy. The only accident TAP has suffered was in November 1977 when a Boeing 727 overran a wet runway in Funchal, Portugal, killing 131 people. Nevertheless, Air Transport World gave TAP it’s "Technical Management Award" in 1978. TAP have always had an enviable reputation for its technical support and safety record, and was the only European airline capable of overhauling the JT 9-Ds engines that equipped its 747s

TAP’s fleet have included DC-3s a pair of Lockheed L-1049G Super Constellations were put into service on the Imperial Route in November 1955. By 1957, the Super Connies were being used on the Paris and London Routes, and TAP had ordered three Vickers Viscount plans for medium-length routes. Historian R.E.G. Davies's May 1962 listing of world airline fleets allots TAP three Douglas DC-4s, three DC-6s, and five Lockheed Super Constellations.

Who are the flag carriers?

A flag carrier is an airline, that enjoys preferential rights or privileges accorded by the government for international operations. The term also refers to any carrier that was once owned by a government, even after their privatisation. Flag carriers are, or should be, something a country is proud of. Europe still has plenty of them, Air France, KLM, SAS, Lufthansa, even British Airways is considered a flag carrier despite its privatisation. Few have not needed EU and government funds to keep them flying.

TAP must be supported and survive

TAP must, and will, survive these problems. They are still a very good airline who offer much better service than the cut throat operator such as Ryanair. I have flown TAP Business Class for many years, and have always appreciated the service, TAP have a superb business class lounge in Lisbon, one of the best in Europe, On board they have good meals, which you can choose in advance, excellent wines and very good service. I don’t want to fly with my knees under my chin, if I must fly, I want it to be as comfortable as possible, and TAP achieves that.

Let’s just hope they can sort out customer service. Speaking personally, I really like to see the flag of Portugal traveling around the world and promoting a very special country.

TAP’s old slogan used to be, ‘As big as an airline should be’. It was a great marketing line and reflected what they wanted to achieve, big but still personal. Maybe they should go back to those objectives.