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.
Although now largely redundant, franchising was seen as a significant means of extending the reach of BA in the 1990s, both in the UK and around the world.
Under franchise agreements, airlines remained independently owned and managed but operated flights in full British Airways livery, albeit to slightly varying, and often better, service standards.
As well as generating revenue though licensing the BA brand, they enabled BA to offer many destinations that it could not serve economically.
At its peak BA had in excess of 10 franchises around the world. By the late 1990s nearly 6 million passengers flew on BA franchise airlines a year on over 100 aircraft to a similar number of destinations. Now there are just two franchise airlines. Some franchises were acquired by BA. Some were acquired by others. And some simply went out of business.
Many franchises struggled to compete against the rise of low cost airlines. They were also seen as less attractive as they are commercially and operationally independent to BA, but in the eyes of the passengers they are flying with BA and any customer service issues are seen to rest with BA.
The main franchises included:
Airline Management Limited
Airline Management Limited was a joint-venture between BA and the Flying Colours Group at Gatwick in the late 1990s.
It initially operated DC-10 and then Boeing 777-200 aircraft to Florida and the Caribbean. Flights were operated by BA pilots and cabin crew employed by AML. The operation of Boeing 777-200 was noteworthy as the aircraft operated in a dense two class configuration with 10 abreast seating in economy. Whilst this did not survive the end of the agreement, BA is now in the process of installing 10 abreast seating on its Boeing 777 fleet.
BASE Airlines of The Netherlands
BASE (Business Aviation Services Eindhoven) Airlines of the Netherlands – Established in The Netherlands in 1985, this small regional airline became a BA franchise in 1999 operating flights from London Heathrow to Eindhoven as well as Gatwick and UK regional airports to Eindhoven and Rotterdam.
British Mediterranean Airways
British Mediterranean Airways (“BMED”) – Originally founded in 1994, BMED became a BA franchise in 1997 serving destinations in the Middle East such as Amman, Beirut and Damascus with Airbus A320 aircraft.
It soon added destinations such as Alexandria, Bishkek, Tbilisi and Yerevan. These are of course destinations heavily exposed to geopolitical events.
After two years of heavy losses and BA declining to buy the airline, BMED was acquired by bmi British Midland in 2007 with the aim of repositioning bmi as a medium-haul airline. It became fully integrated bmi in late October 2007.
bmi’s owner Sir Michael Bishop exercised an option to sell the airline to Lufthansa in 2009. After struggling to turn around financial losses, Lufthansa had no option but to sell bmi to IAG in 2012. BA wasted little time in suspending virtually all former BMED routes and today it serves just Amman.
British Regional Airlines
British Regional Airlines operated primarily from UK regional airports. It would eventually be acquired by BA and integrated into another BA subsidy Brymon Airways and in turn rebranded by as BA CitiExpress. This is also operated from London City. It would later be rebranded as BA Connect. Most of BA Connect was effectively given away to Flybe, leaving what is now BA CityFlyer to operate almost exclusively from London City.
Comair is one of only two remaining franchises, and arguably its most important.
Originally founded in 1946, it became a BA franchise in 1996. It operates routes to destinations in South Africa, Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe from its main hub at Johannesburg with a fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft. BA owns a 11.49% stake in Comair. Comair also operates separately under the kulula.com name and the SLOW lounges in South Africa.
South Africa is of course an extremely important market for BA and Comair provides feed to its long-haul flights. BA did attempt to set-up a local franchise partner in India, another important market, but to no avail.
Owned by the Bland Group and largely operating leisure destinations to the Mediterranean, principally from Gatwick, GB Airways was much loved by its passengers.
BA did own 49% of GB Airways before selling all of its share to the Bland Group. Routes used to frequently swap between BA and GB Airways.
GB Airways was acquired by easyJet in 2007 for £103m in cash with, not for the first, nor last time, BA indirectly giving easyJet a significant growth opportunity. The acquisition of GB Airways helped easyJet overtake BA at Gatwick.
Loganair, which traces its origins to the 1960s, became a BA franchise in 1995. It progressively expanded and took over many routes to the Scottish Highlands and Islands formerly operated by other BA partners.
Loganair has always been one of the more interesting franchise partners because of the remote destinations it served. It operates the world’s shortest commercial flight at just 90 seconds long between The Westray and Papa Westray as part of the Orkney Inter-Island Service. Flights to Barra also land on the beach!
After the loss of BMED and GB Airways, BA terminated its last remaining UK franchise agreement with Loganair, claiming that franchises no longer served a purpose. Loganair now operates as an independent airline with a codeshare with BA.
SUN-AIR of Scandinavia A/S
SUN-AIR of Scandinavia A/S is the second of BA’s last remaining franchises.
Based in Denmark, SUN-AIR’s main hubs are Aarhus and Billund. From the UK, it flies from London City and Manchester to Billund where it provides a solidly old school service using a Dornier 328 jet. It also occasionally provides wet lease services for BA CityFlyer.
Other former BA franchises included Air Kenya Aviation Ltd, which traded as Regional Air, National Jet Italia, and Zambian Air Services.