BA100: 81. “Airline” (1990)

100 Years Of British Airways: “Airline” the BBC’s four part documentary series on BA from 1990.

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British Airways Boeing 747-400 Aircraft
British Airways Boeing 747-400 Aircraft (Image Credit: British Airways)

This article was published in 2019 in a series on the history of British Airways and its predecessors Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse all 100 stories in number order, by theme or by decade.

Many have been updated since first published.

Over the past few decades, BA has regularly opened itself up to the cameras.

In 2013, BA was the subject of a BBC documentary series “A Very British Airline”. Title Role Productions is currently filming a series on BA’s centenary year for Channel 5. It’s also taken part in airport series such as “Airport Live” and “Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport.”

However, it is relatively rare that you see the upper echelons of BA at work – PRs know that access given to TV production companies must be carefully controlled. However, “Airline” from 1990 was an exception.

Filmed in 1989, this four part series covers the delivery of the first Boeing 747-400 aircraft and BA’s position in the market at the time, competing against airlines such as American Airlines (then a foe wishing to secure access to Heathrow), Singapore Airlines and former rivals Air Europe, British Caledonian, British Midland, and Laker Airways.

There’s a good amount of vintage footage, including the relaunch of First Class in 1989. One notable episode is dedicated to following Lord King at work, with his famously abrupt manner with journalists.

Of course, much has changed in 30 years. This series pre-dates the liberalisation of the aviation market in Europe. Though some things haven’t changed. BA CEO Colin Marshall complains about the US being unwilling to open up its domestic market to overseas airlines which, in spite of EU-US Open Skies, it has doggedly refused to do.

Quick Links

Part 1

Jet Jockeys – It’s the job every small boy dreams of, but the pilot’s role is changing fast. In Jet Jockeys cameras are for the first time in the cockpit for BA’s 22-hour London to Sydney flight, and with the pilots off duty in Bangkok. What personal and professional problems do pilots face? Is the job as glamorous as it seems? How do pilots combat fatigue on the flight deck? Will the day come when air traffic controllers take over and the jet jockeys no longer fly their own aircraft? 

Part 2

A film profile of BA’s chairman for the past ten years and the man rumoured to be Mrs Thatcher ‘s favourite businessman, Lord King of Wartnaby.  Airline investigates both the man himself and the past ten years in the history of British Airways.  The film goes behind the scenes and reveals how Lord King operates: in the boardroom, lobbying journalists and politicians, and on an official BA visit to Moscow.

Part 3

Like born-again believers, British Airways staff gather in a converted hangar to have their faith in the company enhanced, as BA preachers exhort them “to be the best”.

Meanwhile, at Heathrow’s No 4 terminal, tension mounts as BA ground staff realise they have a heavily overbooked flight to explain to scores of angry customers. 

The programme covers one frantic day in the life of a major airline – from the £24 million luxury launch of its new First Class to a travel agent getting a roasting from a BA representative for falling ticket sales.

It observes the hyped-up performance of the self-styled “world’s favourite airline” and asks: is this glamorously remodelled airline in danger of forgetting service in the pursuit of profit? 

Part 4

BA engineers are test-flying the new 747-400, first of a fleet of 21 long-range aircraft costing $135 million each. It’s the plane with which BA will challenge the major American and European airlines in the sky wars of the 1990s. In the background are science fiction technology and the ever-present and highly sensitive issue of air safety. 

You can continue reading our 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA in numerical order, by theme or by decade.

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