This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
British Airways as we know it today did not come into existence until 1974.
So how does it celebrate its centenary in 2019?
Unlike KLM, which also celebrates its centenary his year BA has not operated under one name for 100 years. And, unlike Qantas which celebrates its centenary in 2020, BA cannot claim to have had 100 years’ uninterrupted commercial operations.
Well, to buy in to BA’s centenary you have to acknowledge that, over time, aircraft and airlines have been transferred through various airlines. In truth, it is the 100th anniversary of international civil aviation in the UK.
The First Flight
BA traces its history back to Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd which began flights from Hounslow Heath to Paris on 25 August 1919.
This was one of number of companies to begin scheduled operations in 1919. However, due to competition from airlines in mainland Europe, it soon folded.
A successor to Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd, Daimler Airways, combined with a number of other airlines to form Imperial Airways in 1924.
It operated both short-haul routes in Europe and established new routes to Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Imperial Airways adopted the “Speedbird” logo designed by Theyre Lee Elliot in 1932 which BA retained as part of its livery until its Landor livery in the 1980s. This subsequently evolved into the Speedwing and the Speedmarque, which you see on BA aircraft today.
Imperial Airways, together with Qantas, formed Qantas Empire Airways to operate joint-services between the UK and Australia from 1935 – a relationship which endured between Qantas and Imperial Airways’ successor airlines for nearly 80 years.
The original British Airways was formed in 1935.
Both British Airways and Imperial Airways were nationalised to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (“BOAC”) in 1939.
“To All Six Continents”
Following the resumption of commercial flying after the Second World War, BOAC developed new services to North America and around the world services, competing with Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines.
It was in BOAC’s era that the jet age arrived with BOAC operating the Comet, the Vickers VC10, Boeing 707 and Boeing 747 aircraft. The latter aircraft has of course been a significant part of BA’s long-haul fleet for decades.
“The Key To Europe”
Short-haul services at this time were operated by British European Airways which began services at Northolt in 1946 and set about progressively expanding its UK domestic and European network.
“A Combined Effort To Give You The Best Airline In the World”
BEA, BOAC and a number of smaller airlines including Cambrian, Northeast, Channel Islands Airways and Scottish Airways came together under the British Airways board in 1972 and merged to become British Airways in 1974.
After heavily financial losses and poor industrial relations, Lord King was appointed Chairman in 1981 to restore BA to profitability and prepare the airline for privatisation.
“The World’s Favourite Airline”
Colin Marshall, formerly CEO of Avis in the United States, was appointed Chief Executive in 1983.
After the appointment of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, BA adopted the slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline” based on the simple fact that it carried more international passengers than any other airline. Despite many protests to advertising regulators from rivals, BA kept this slogan for nearly 20 years.
BA embarked on a major programme of change, cutting many senior managers and staff, appointing Landor Associates in California to rebrand the airline, and instituting a training programme “Putting People First” for tens of thousands of staff.
Marketing took a more prominent role in the organisation, not only through big budget marketing campaigns, but by introducing a new branded cabins such as Club World, Club Europe, Euro Traveller and World Traveller.
After a successful privatisation in 1987, BA entered what could be termed its imperial phase. It was intent on becoming a global force in aviation extending its reach beyond the UK through franchising its name and, over time, acquiring stakes in other airlines such as Air Liberté, Deutsche BA, Iberia, Qantas and USAir.
BA developed a deep working relationship with Qantas, operating a joint-business from the mid-1990s, at a time when Qantas was the dominant international airline for passengers travelling to Australia.
The 1990s also saw a number of innovations such as the introduction of arrivals lounges, Fast Track ground facilities for premium passengers, fully flat beds in First Class and Club World, and the “Terraces” lounge concept. The theme of these innovations was creating flexible cabins and spaces that could be adapted to specific passenger needs.
Following the deregulation of air travel in Europe in 1990s, BA also launched its own low cost airline “Go” to respond to the growth of easyJet and Ryanair.
“The Undisputed Leader In World Travel.”
BA maintained its global ambitions in the 1990s, but towards the end of the decade, it started to retreat.
It struggled to achieve profitability at Gatwick. Many long-haul routes were transferred to Heathrow and BA embarked on a long process to simplify its Gatwick operation which today operates just two types of aircraft, the Boeing 777-200 and Airbus A320 series.
BA also switched an order for the Boeing 747 to the Boeing 777 and began replacing Boeing 757 aircraft on short-haul routes with Airbus A320 series aircraft (its first order for Airbus aircraft in 1998) to cut capacity and reduce its reliance on transfer passengers at Heathrow. BA also decided to sell Go.
The formation of the Oneworld alliance in 1999 also began a process of closer co-operation with alliance partners.
“Future Size and Shape”
After one of the single most significant events in aviation history, 11 September 2001, BA undertook a review of its business known as “Future Size and Shape”.
It had far reaching effects. BA began downsizing further at Gatwick. It also reshaped its Heathrow network, reducing the number of 1/2 stop flights in favour of codeshares with partner airlines. Concorde was also withdrawn from service in 2003. BA sold its interests in Qantas. 28 weekly flights to Australia would eventually dwindle down to 7.
Having acquired the domain ba.com, BA’s website became a significant part of the business to simplify passenger handling processes and take control of distribution.
BA also embarked on a change programme “Fit For Five” to reform working practices to prepare for its move to Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008. After a difficult launch, Terminal 5 radically improved the airline’s operational performance at Heathrow which had been extremely challenging in the previous few years.
After the sale of franchise partners British Mediterranean Airways and GB Airways to bmi British Midland and easyJet, BA terminated its remaining UK franchise agreement with Loganair.
This left just two franchise agreements with SUN-AIR of Scandinavia A/S and Comair in South Africa.
BA also effectively paid Flybe to take its regional operation off its hands. After the suspension of its last international route from Manchester to New York JFK, this left BA operating international services exclusively from London.
The IAG Era
Whilst BA had ambitions to play a significant role in European consolidation, by the late 2000s it was falling behind.
Merger talks with KLM fell through, leaving it to merge with Air France. Talks with SWISS also failed, leaving it to be acquired by Lufthansa. After parallel talks to merge with Qantas also fell through, BA merged with Iberia in 2011 under the umbrella of International Airlines Group, headed by former BA CEO Willie Walsh.
IAG has since acquired Aer Lingus and Vueling, and significantly for BA, bmi British Midland which has enabled significant network growth at Heathrow in recent years.
Whilst BA benefits from merger synergies by being part of IAG, its parent company does have significant influence over investment decisions.