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 Caledonian Airways, also known as BCAL, was formed in 1971 after the Edwards Committee in 1969 recommended the establishment of a “second force” independent airline to compete against the soon to be merged BEA/BOAC.
The airline was created through the merger of British United Airlines and Caledonian Airways and its hub was based at Gatwick. To give it a head start, the Government transferred route authorities to Central and West Africa and South America from BOAC to BCAL.
“We never forget you have a choice.”
British Caledonian sold itself on the basis that as an independent airline it had to work much harder to win customer loyalty.
This was a time of significant Government intervention and route authorities were allocated by the Government between BA and BCAL.
BA insisted it needed the freedom to compete against international airlines and should not be impeded by losing routes. BCAL fought a very public campaign that further route authorities should be transferred from BA to BCAL. Not only that, BA should transfer its regional operations to other airlines, leave Gatwick to BCAL and operate exclusively from Heathrow.
BCAL did have some success in securing route authorities including notably, much to the annoyance of BA, to Saudi Arabia in 1985.
BCAL did also serve North America. In addition to New York and Los Angeles, it did successfully launch routes to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.
Whilst BCAL was well liked by its passengers and it won many awards, so much so that by 1987 it carried 2.5 million passengers a year, financial success was harder to achieve.
Acquisition by British Airways
After an initially unsuccessful bid, a rival bid from SAS Scandinavian Airlines, and an enquiry by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission, British Caledonian was acquired by BA in 1988.
As part the deal, BA acquired a fleet of 8 DC-10, 5 Boeing 747 and 13 One-Eleven-500 aircraft as well a future order for ten Airbus A320 aircraft – the first Airbus aircraft to be acquired by the airline.
The Airbus A320 aircraft transferred to Heathrow shortly after delivery. The 747 and One-Eleven-500 aircraft were soon disposed of, but the DC-10 aircraft stayed at Gatwick well into the late 1990s.
Whilst BA moved quickly to integrate British Caledonian, it did prompt the airline to make a major investment in Gatwick at the newly opened North Terminal and the development of a second London hub. The British Caledonian name was retained as BA’s charter subsidiary British Airtours was rebranded as Caledonian Airways, with a variation of the British Caledonian livery.
Over time, former British Caledonian routes to Africa and Latin America would be transferred to Heathrow. The last remaining former British Caledonian routes to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston were transferred after the EU-US Open Skies treaty came into effect in 2008.
Whilst British Caledonian the name and livery has long gone you still do occasionally hear the words “We never forget you have a choice” uttered by BA pilots today.