The first seaplane flight was in 1912, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the government decided to establish a seaplane base in Lisbon. Can you imagine taking your hand baggage on a boat out to the waiting seaplane at Cabo Ruivo. Strangely the Portela airport opened on 15 October 1942, just four years later, during World War II, and initially operated in conjunction with the Cabo Ruivo Seaplane Base. Seaplanes performed transatlantic flights, and passengers were transferred onto continental flights operating from the new airport. The future of air transport was moving fast.

The Wright brothers managed to get a ‘serious’ plane into the air in 1903, but it took many years of experiment and development before something resembling a passenger aircraft made its first flight. Portugal figured frequently from the early days. In 1919 a US Navy flying boat made it from Newfoundland to Portugal by way if the Azores, and then flew on to England. It was a 23 day trip with over 54 hours in the air. Don’t complain about flights taking two or three hours to reach Portugal these days.

Crossing the oceans was the big challenge

Overland flights were not such a challenge as crossing the ocean. These shorter range flights started in the 1920’s but didn’t start to attract many passengers until the 1930’s. Flights were long with frequent refuelling stops, bumpy, to put it mildly. Passengers frequently sat on wicker chairs but were served anything up to a seven course meal. In-flight entertainment systems looked rather different too. Today aeroplane entertainment is a solitary, hi-tech affair but, in the early days of flight, passengers would typically gather around a single screen if they wanted to catch a movie. One of the earliest films to be shown up high was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's ‘The Lost World’ in 1925 with Imperial Airways.

The big target was to cross the Atlantic to North or South America and Pan American achieved this in 1939 with their ‘Yankee Clipper’ aircraft or "flying boat". The main departure points were Southampton and Lisbon. You could fly overland, albeit with a few stops and the transfer from Lisbon airport down to the docks to a waiting flying boat. Lisbon was a main staging post for flights to Africa.

The end of the flying boat airline era came after the second world war. The flying boats were designed because there were originally very few long runways that could handle a large airliner. Also the navigation aids of the time were minimal and bad weather often meant that planes had to land with a cross-wind. The flying boat overcame all of these things neatly with ready made water runways available all over the world.

And on February 23, 1939, the grandest embodiment of the flying boats, the Boeing 314, made its inaugural flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong. The California Clipper had plush seating for 74 (sleeping berths for 36), a separate dining room where passengers were served full-course meals, separate men's and women's bathrooms, a deluxe compartment for VIPs, dressing rooms, and a dedicated lounge. Try selling that idea to Ryanair.

Post war the development of conventional aircraft moved at great speed, not least due to the experience gained from wartime bombers that had better range and could carry a large payload.

Speed and convenience increased, but the luxuries disappeared as demand increased and the rule became fit as many people as you can in the most economic way. The glamour of flying was gone.

Bring back comfortable travel

What many people want is to be able to travel to Portugal by train. Flying has long lost its glamour and the hassles of the airports are time consuming and frustrating. The EU and the train operators are fully aware of this and progressing faster than you might think. Budding operators such as Midnight Trains are working hard to bring luxury sleeper trains into service, companies such as Nightjet are already operating. Five years ago, sleeper trains were closing down everywhere, the rolling stock was old and not capable of the sort of speeds the future of train travel demands. This is changing fast due to demand.

Spanish operator RENFE is determined to start operations from St. Pancras International to Paris and onwards. According to the general management of Getlink, the operators of the Chanel Tunnel, RENFE could soon obtain its license.

Once granted the infrastructure for high speed rail travel direct from London to Madrid and Seville is already available. If passenger demand is there, there is no practical reason for this not to become available quickly. Madrid to Lisbon remains the last barrier to high speed rail for London to Portugal.

Spain receives funding to complete Madrid-Lisbon connection

The European Commission has approved a EUR 265 million funding from the European Regional Development Fund for the improvement of 178 km rail section part of Madrid-Lisbon high-speed line on the Atlantic Corridor.

€1.56 billion is the total value of the project which is expected to be completed in December 2022. According to official reports the line between the Spanish border and Lisbon is currently planned to open by 2030.

You can already travel from London to Lisbon via Barcelona and Madrid but what most people want is direct high speed service with sleeper carriages. Bringing back the comfort and ‘glamour’ of travel is nearer than you think, but it won’t be by plane, the train is the future.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman