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.
The early 1990s was not a good era for BA.
Traffic fell away sharply during the 1990 Gulf War, which also led to the destruction of one of its Boeing 747 aircraft in Kuwait, with demand falling by about 30%.
BA was also facing increased competition at Heathrow with American Airlines and United Airlines securing route authorities from Trans World Airlines and Pan American World Airways. Virgin Atlantic was to also shortly secure access to Heathrow.
In March 1991, former BA Chairman Lord King described the situation as “The engine of consumer demand did not just idle in neutral, it sputtered to a complete stop” and “now it needs a kick start”.
“The World’s Biggest Offer”
So BA hatched a plan.
It gave away in a ballot every single seat on every international flight to and from the UK, including Concorde, on 23 April 1991. This was equivalent to around 50,000 free tickets. The 20,000 passengers who had already booked flights on that day would receive a voucher towards the purchase of a new flight.
Passengers could either apply in person at BA ticket offices or through newspaper entry forms.
The promotion was kept under wraps until it broke on the same day around the world in March 1991 – an achievement in itself given this pre-dated the internet.
BA’s ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi booked space in newspapers in over 70 countries around the world for the promotion. Bogus adverts were placed with the newspapers and then swapped at the eleventh hour.
It is estimated that some 500 million people read about the offer, 200 million saw it on TV and 5.7 million people entered the ballot for a free flight.
There is of course no more powerful marketing tool than getting something for free. The promotion was considered a success with passenger numbers returning to their original level within 120 days.