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.
Imagine being able to turn up at the aircraft gate ten minutes before departure without a ticket and being guaranteed to secure a seat on the aircraft.
That may seem fanciful today – even if you had a ticket you wouldn’t even be able to go through security and would have been offloaded from the flight.
However, in January 1975 BA brought American style “shuttle” services to the UK.
Believed to be the first service of its kind in Europe, passengers travelling from London to Glasgow could turn up at the gate ten minutes before departure and be guaranteed a seat.
Not only that, if the flight was full BA would have another aircraft on standby. Flights operated every hour Monday to Saturday (every two hours on a Sunday) with a fleet of nine Hawker – Siddeley Trident aircraft in a single cabin.
This was of course an era of restrictive practices and demarcation of roles, and plans to allow passengers to buy tickets on board the aircraft had to be curtailed initially due to objections from trade unions.
BA did also plan to extend the shuttle service beyond UK domestic routes to other cities in mainland Europe such as Brussels and Paris. However, following unsuccessful talks with regulatory authorities and rival airlines such as Air France, this did not come to fruition.
In 1983, BA was losing market share on routes to Glasgow and Edinburgh due to competition from “friendly independent” British Midland Airways. In response to criticism that in-flight service was relatively spartan, BA upgraded the Shuttle to the Super Shuttle and offered complimentary hot meals and a bar service to match British Midland. To mark the launch of the Super Shuttle, BA operated a one-off Concorde service from London Heathrow to Glasgow.
BA and British Midland were fierce rivals on these routes, competing on frequency, schedule and in-flight service. Whilst British Midland did not have the scale of BA, it did inspire loyalty from its frequent flyers, particularly those who could not warm to its larger rival.
Whilst the facility to to turn up and go has long gone, BA maintained the Shuttle service and branding into the 21st century.
The image at the top of this article featured on what was in 1998 the UK’s longest billboard (250 ft long and 20 ft high) on Cromwell Road. However, faced with competition from low cost airlines such as easyJet and the train becoming a credible alternative on flights to Manchester, the service had been progressively downgraded.
The Boeing 757 aircraft that used to ply Shuttle routes in the 1980s and 1990s were downgraded to smaller Airbus A320 series aircraft. Cabin crew bases in Manchester and Glasgow, which BA used to sell as offering cabin crew with local knowledge, were closed. BA has had phases of significant operational disruption at Heathrow, and it has always been a source of frustration to regular passengers that UK domestic flights are cancelled first to minimise disruption elsewhere.
The in-flight service was also pared back, with progressively smaller offerings, particularly outside of breakfast and dinner. Whilst BA long managed to resist removing breakfast and complimentary drinks altogether, in 2017 BA removed these entirely in favour of Buy-On-Board.
A small consolation was that BA introduced its European short-haul business class Club Europe, leaving UK domestic services largely aligned with the rest of its short-haul flights.
Also, following the acquisition of bmi from Lufthansa in 2012 BA has increased its UK domestic presence at Heathrow by launching new services to Belfast, Inverness and Leeds-Bradford.