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.
If you ask any frequent flyer from North America or Asia what they like least about flying in Europe, it’s likely they will baulk at what passes for short-haul business class in Europe.
On North American and Asian airlines you have dedicated First and business class cabins on short-haul routes, albeit with the quality of catering varying widely between American and Asian carriers.
In Europe, you have a seat that is barely any different from economy. All you are guaranteed is a window or aisle seat and some form of complimentary catering.
European airlines like this because they can set the size of the cabin to exactly match it to demand. US airlines of course largely fill their First Class cabins with complimentary upgrades for frequent flyers.
BA did in fact provide First Class on short-haul routes, but this was withdrawn in the early 1980s, in favour of what was then Club.
BA’s current short-haul business class brand, Club Europe, was first introduced in 1988.
The cabin underwent a significant relaunch in 1994 as BA introduced wider convertible seats.
Whilst there has never much to shout about the cabin itself, the big emphasis at the time was on improved ground facilities to save time for passengers flying out and back in a day, such as Fast Track security channels at London Heathrow Terminal 1 (BA also some years later introduced a very popular “Zone R” premium check-in area.).
As this was the era before online check-in, BA also introduced telephone check-in (as in literally telephoning BA to check-in…) up to 30 minutes before departure. At some airports, you could also check-in in the lounge or at the departure gate as well as at parking and car hire facilities. BA also added more lounges in mainland Europe.
After both the events of 11 September 2001 and the 2008 financial crisis, there were structural declines in demand as companies tightened their travel policies.
BA did look at withdrawing the cabin altogether at Gatwick. Many BA lounges in Europe such as Copenhagen, Dusseldorf and Munich have closed. However, the cabin is still going strong, aided in part by upgrade offers though ba.com Club Europe was also introduced on UK domestic routes in 2017.
Today, as the workhorses of short-haul travel in Europe, Airbus A320 aircraft, have been “densified” and customers on hand-baggage only fares battle for overhead bin space, the main benefit of the cabin is a form of insurance against the unpleasantries of short-haul travel in Europe.