British Airways – 100 Years

On the day this post goes live, British Airways will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of its birth and the first flight by its predecessor Aircraft Transport & Travel. This post will combine a brief history of British Airways (BA) and its ancestors as well as including facts and photos gained from my visit to the BA Heritage Centre in June.

Departing Hounslow Heath Airfield on 25th August 1919, the flight to Paris Le Bourget was the first scheduled daily commercial passenger and mail flight in the world. Aircraft Transport & Travel (AT&T) continued to operate flights on this route until December 1920 when it was overcome by debt. In early 1921, the assets of AT&T were purchased by Daimler and the new airline Daimler Airway Ltd again operated on the London – Paris route alongside 5 other airlines (2 British & 3 French). The re-opened service by Daimler didn’t last long, with it, and it’s two fellow British competitors on the route, suspending flights in February 1921 in protest at the continued subsidy of their competitors by the French government.

A poster advertising AT&T’s London to Paris route

In 1924, following the advice of the British government’s Hambling committee, a subsidy was provided to encourage the merger of four existing British airlines into what would be known as Imperial Airways (IA). Born on 1st April 1924, IA began services just over 3 weeks later with the prestigious London – Paris route and by the end of June services were operating to Amsterdam, Basel, Brussels, Cologne, Guernsey and Zurich. In its first year Imperial Airways carried more than 11,000 passengers and over 200,000 letters in aircraft with a maximum capacity of 12 passengers. In less than 10 years, IA was operating flights to a wide range of destinations including Egypt, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa and modern-day Tanzania.

Whilst the expansion of IA continued, another airline was formed through the merger of Spartan Air Lines and United Airways (no relation to the US carrier) with British Airways Ltd (BAL) coming into existence at the end of September 1935. Whilst the first couple of years were relatively uneventful for the new airline, in September 1938 two of the airline’s aircraft were used to transport British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on three separate trips to Germany in the space of 15 days, with the final trip culminating in the now (in)famous “Peace in our time” speech at Heston Aerodrome. BAL continued to flourish with new routes to Berlin, Budapest, Frankfurt, Lisbon & Warsaw opening prior to the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939.

An Imperial Airways Bell with ‘Imperial’ removed

When war was declared on 1st September 1939, the government implemented the Air Navigation (Restriction in Time of War) Order 1939, which ordered a military takeover of civilian airfields and the cessation of all private flying without a permit. The aircraft and administrations of both BAL and IA were transferred to Bristol’s Whitchurch Airport to be jointly operated by the National Air Communications (NAC) department of the Air Ministry. On the 1st April 1940 (the 1st April seems to be the go-to date through BA’s history), BAL and IA were merged into British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) which continued to be operated by the NAC.

Upon the demise of the Imperial Airways names a message was sent to all of the ‘stations’ around the globe informing them of the change and for the ‘Imperial’ name to be removed. One station manager decided to take the instruction to the extreme and arranged for the word Imperial to be removed from the station bell. BOAC continued to operate the majority of Imperial’s and BAL’s flights throughout the war and on the 1st January 1946, BOAC created the British European Airlines (BEA) division to operate domestic and short-haul international flights. 8 months later on 1st August 1946, BEA became a crown corporation in its own right and for the 28 years the two companies would operate alongside each other whilst remaining completely separate.

A display showing the first flight of British South American Airways

Alongside the creation of BEA, BOAC also formed a division called British South American Airways (BSAA) which would operate services to the Caribbean and South America. As with BEA, BSAA became a corporation in its own right in August 1946 but only lasted 3 years before being amalgamated back into BOAC on 1st January 1950. In its four years of existence, BSAA had an eventful history, taking part in the Berlin Airlift and unfortunately losing at least three of it’s aircraft on commercial flights. Two of these aircraft, Star Ariel & Star Tiger were lost in the now infamous Bermuda Triangle and their disappearances were key events in the formation of the myth surrounding the triangle.

In 1952 BOAC played a crucial role in the history of the United Kingdom when it was responsible for returning the recently ascended Queen Elizabeth II to London from Kenya. In early 1952 the then Princess Elizabeth set out for a tour of Australia and New Zealand via Kenya with Prince Phillip. BOAC had been contracted to provide an aircraft for the entirety of this trip and after taking Elizabeth and Phillip to Kenya, returned to the UK to collect all the required items for the tour of Australasia. Supposedly, shortly after arriving into Nairobi for the second time, the crew had begun to relax, and their uniforms sent to the local BOAC contracted laundry for cleaning. Just a few hours after arrival, a telegram arrived informing the crew of the news that King George V had passed away and the royal party needed to be returned to London will all due haste. With no time to wait for the uniforms to be returned, the crew operated the flight from Nairobi in their casual clothes. Fortunately, a technical stop in Tripoli provided BOAC the opportunity to swap flight crews and prevent the embarrassing situation of the crew arriving in London out of uniform in a time of national mourning.

A display at the BA Heritage Centre all about the airline’s link to Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension

Throughout their almost 30-year history, both BEA and BOAC continued to thrive expanding both their route networks and fleets. In the 10 years between 1961 and 1971 BEA more than doubled the number of passengers carried from just under 4 million in the early 1960s to 8.67 million passengers in the 1970-71 financial year. Meanwhile BOAC had also expanded going from 456 million revenue passenger kilometres (RPKMs) in 1947 to 3,765 million RPKMs in 1960 and almost 11,500 million RPKMs in 1971. BOAC had also been the first airline to introduce a passenger jet aircraft into commercial service with a De Havilland Comet flying to Johannesburg via Nairobi.

Following the 1969 Edwards Report the British Airways (BA) Board was constituted on the 1st April 1972 and was responsible for managing both BEA and BOAC as well as regional airlines Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airlines. Initially each of the four airlines retained its own branding and operations but two years later on 1st April 1974 the BA Board unified its branding and all four airlines merged into British Airways. Whilst BA retained the ’Speedbird’ callsign and ‘BA’ IATA code of BOAC, BEA’s ‘Bealine’ and ‘BE’ ceased to exist with the 2330 arrival at Heathrow of Bealine 943 from Dublin on 31st March 1974.

Model aircraft on display at the BA Heritage Centre, including one of BA’s former flagship, Concorde

Just two years into its existence, on 21st January 1976, BA made aviation history by, simultaneously with Air France, operating the world’s first supersonic passenger service. Initially BA were unable to operate its flagship aircraft on its flagship North American routes due to the United States Congress banning Concorde landing in the US. The US Secretary of Transportation gave permission for BA and Air France to operate Concorde into Washington with flights beginning in May 1976 before Congress’s ban was lifted in 1977 and flights to New York began in November 1977. BA continued to operate Concorde on its trans-Atlantic routes until it retired the aircraft type in October 2003 when, on the final day of commercial operations (24th October 2003), three BA Concordes landed consecutively at Heathrow.

In 1981, Sir John King, was appointed Chairman of BA with the task of preparing the airline for privatisation and is credited with transforming BA from a giant loss-maker into one of the most profitable airlines in the world. Upon being floated on the London Stock Exchange in February 1987, the initial share offering was nine times oversubscribed and viewed as the most successful privatisation of previously state-owned companies around that time. BA continued to grow and in late 1987 rescued Britain’s second airline British Caledonian by taking the airline over to avoid its collapse. The Caledonian name was retained by BA as the leisure arm, BA Airtours, was renamed Caledonian Airways.

A selection of uniforms worn by BA crews over the years

The early 1990s marked the start of a period of expansion and change for BA, with the takeovers of Delta Air Transport, which became Deutsch BA, Brymon Airways, which became BA Connect and Gatwick based Dan-Air, which allowed BA to expand its operations from London’s second airport. In addition to these takeovers, BA also invested in stakes in Air Liberté, QANTAS, TAT European Airlines and USAir. 1993 also saw the creation of subsidiary British Asia Airways allowing BA to operate flights to Taiwan via Hong Kong.

The latter part of the decade saw a turn in fortunes with high oil prices and increased competition leading BA into a turbulent period of its history. Despite these difficulties the decade was a period of large fleet renewal with the Airbus A320 being introduced as the mainstay of the short haul fleet. 1998 saw BA become one of the founding members of the Oneworld alliance and the airline move into its new headquarters at Waterside.

The British Airways headquarters at Waterside

Unfortunately for BA, the first decade of the new millennium saw the airline needing to continue its regime of cost cutting following a 50% drop in profits in 1999 and the fall of BA’s share price from 760p in 1997 to 150p following the tragic events of September 11th 2001. BA sold off a number of its investments and subsidiaries and retired older aircraft in its fleet including some Boeing 767s and all of the remaining Boeing 747-200s. 2008 saw BA and Iberia propose a merger that would eventually be completed in 2011 and lead to the creation of the International Airlines Group (IAG). Since its formation, IAG has continued to expand and is now the parent group of Aer Lingus, Level and Vueling in addition to the founding partnership of BA and Iberia. 2016 saw IAG carry more than 100 million passengers worldwide and further expansion in 2017 meant the group had more than doubled its annual passenger numbers since 2011.

In the 100 years since AT&Ts first regular scheduled commercial flight between London and Paris there have been immense changes to the aviation industry. The supersonic technology of Concorde has come and gone to be replaced by the supersized technology of the Airbus A380. Airlines have been founded, merged and gone bust and the 12 and a half day, multiple stop flights from London to Australia of 1935 have been replaced by an 18-hour non-stop flight from Heathrow to Perth. British Airways and its predecessors have evolved into the airline we know and love (or hate) today and hopefully the next 100 years will bring even more change and innovation.

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