A daily bulletin of news & opinion

7 February 2012

Funny, how a brand can be such a key part of a nation’s identity and yet the majority of citizens don’t really understand its significance until it’s gone. Last week the Hungarian flag carrier airline, Malév, ceased all operations after 66 years in business. Hungary is in mourning.

The collapse had been years in the making but somehow still took everyone – especially the Hungarian government – by surprise. Magyars are a weird bunch when it comes to expressing their feelings; this is my time to come clean.

Malév, my dear, blue-nosed friend, I apologise for having neglected you in recent years. But I want you to know that you were the only one I ever adored. The moment I stepped inside your Tu-154 for the first time in 1997, I hoped our relationship would be a long-lasting one. Even when you gave me trouble I thought we could work it out. Like when you sold your landing slots at Heathrow, or insisted time and again that ham was a vegetarian option.

You encouraged boys and girls like me from the Great Hungarian Plain to aim further afield and never anything below 32,000 feet. I wonder if one day someone will be able to carry our small nation’s even smaller pride the way you were able to.

Since privatisation in 2007, bad management, unaccounted government cash and a tangled organisational structure contributed to Malév’s failure. A recent ruling from the European Commission requested the carrier pay back €340m worth of state assistance later deemed illegitimate. The fate of Malév was sealed.

Perhaps the best way to describe this treasured yet troubled organisation is a line from the 1969 satire The Witness directed by Péter Bacsó. It was banned for more than a decade in Hungary because it criticised the communist regime.

In the film, the government tries to grow oranges but because of the climate they turn out more like lemons. “Orange. The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly bitterer, but our own,” says the fictional secretary of defence.

Malév may have been a bit of lemon, but for expats like me, descending into Budapest on one of its planes was great. The scent, the theme song (unchanged, slightly unhinged and almost older than me), the warm buns and a greeting by the kind old dears in the front of the cabin was the true feeling of home.

Nations need brands that can represent them on a global scale. Airlines play a vital role in this game.

It’s time for Hungary – in the midst of restoring its pride and national identity – to recapture the legacy (and 40 per cent of revenues at Budapest Airport) that Malév left behind with a classy, efficient non low-cost alternative.


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