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.
Note many articles have been updated since they were first published.
Nearly 30 years on, the events surrounding flight BA149 on 2 August 1990 remain highly controversial and a source of considerable personal distress for those who were directly involved.
The facts surrounding the flight are these:
On 1 August 1990, flight BA149 was scheduled to depart London Heathrow at 16:15 GMT for Kuala Lumpur, via Kuwait and Chennai.
The departure was delayed by approximately two hours due to a fault with the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit. The Captain of the first leg of the flight was Richard Brungate and the Cabin Service Director was Clive Earthy.
There had been news reports of escalating tensions between Iraq and Kuwait. The Captain requested updates on the situation before the flight was scheduled to depart.
BA claims it was advised at 16:20 GMT by the British embassy in Kuwait that the situation was calm and there was no reason for the flight not to proceed.
The flight, operated by a Boeing 747-136 aircraft registration G-AWND, departed London Heathrow at 18:04 GMT.
The aircraft was in constant radio contact with BA in London during the flight. At no point were the flight crew advised of an impending invasion or to divert the aircraft.
At 22:13 the Captain of BA149 made radio contact with the pilot of BA148 which had just left Kuwait for London and was told that the situation in Kuwait was normal.
The aircraft landed in Kuwait at 04:13 local time. 56 passengers had booked to end their journeys in Kuwait. Those passengers and transit passengers wishing to stretch their legs left the aircraft for the airport terminal.
Another 67 passengers were booked to fly on from Kuwait to Chennai or Kuala Lumpur. Those passengers joined the aircraft with the crew operating the next sector to Chennai.
At around 05:00 local time the airport closed. In the next hour the runway was attacked by Iraqi forces and the BA aircraft was evacuated. The passengers and crew immediately went to an airport hotel.
According to BA, 310 passengers and 82 BA employees were held hostage by Iraqis. Women and children were allowed to return home in late August. The remaining hostages were dispersed to various sites and some were used as “human shields”. The hostages witnessed many atrocities by Iraqi soldiers. The last remaining passengers and BA employees were released on 9 December 1990.
The Boeing 747 aircraft, which had remained at the airport in Kuwait, was subsequently destroyed following the liberation of Kuwait. This was allegedly done by a US fighter plane to prevent it falling into the hands of Saddam Hussein.
“The Last Flight To Kuwait”
The source of the controversy surrounding this flight is why it proceeded to operate when other airlines had suspended operations and who in BA and the UK Government knew what, and when.
The flight was the subject of a drama-documentary “The Last Flight To Kuwait” shown in the UK on BBC2 on 19 March 2007.
The central allegation is that the UK Government wanted the aircraft to land in Kuwait to enable an intelligence gathering exercise to take place.
The film made a specific allegation that a team of intelligence operatives boarded the aircraft at Heathrow. Their behaviour on the flight and at the airport in Kuwait was a source of suspicion for the cabin crew and some passengers. The film also featured contribution from one of the operatives, speaking anonymously, who stated they were there to carry out a covert intelligence mission.
The film also alleged that a BA station manager in Kuwait, Laurence O’Toole, had received advice from Tony Paice, an official responsible for airline security at the British embassy in Kuwait, that an Iraqi invasion would not happen. The documentary alleged that Tony Paice was an also the Kuwait station chief for the Secret Intelligence Service MI6.
BA has always denied any knowledge of a group of intelligence operatives boarding the aircraft. The UK Government made a specific denial that no military personnel were on board the flight. BA claimed that no bookings were made on the day of the departure and the largest group booking for Heathrow – Kuwait was for a family of six passengers. BA has also maintained that no passengers joined the aircraft whilst it was delayed at Heathrow.
The UK Government has also maintained that the aircraft landed in Kuwait before the invasion and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a statement to that effect before Parliament on 6 September 1990.
The British Airways flight landed, its passengers disembarked, and the crew handed over to a successor crew and went to their hotels. All that took place before the invasion: the invasion was later.
In a written letter on 2 October 1992, Prime Minister John Major insisted the government did not attempt to influence BA to operate the flight, nor were there any British military personnel on the flight:
It was clear immediately before the invasion that Iraq was massing troops on its border with Kuwait but the Government had no firm evidence that Saddam Hussein would invade, still less occupy, the whole of Kuwait.
“The British Government did not attempt to influence BA’s decision to operate flight BA 149 on 1-2 August.”
It was not until approximately 0300 GMT that we had clear evidence of a full-scale Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
I can confirm, however, that there were no British military personnel on board the flight.”
This is contradicted by accounts that the CIA had warned the White House at 22:00 BST of movements by Iraqi forces.
The matter was discussed again in Parliament on 27 April 2007 following the screening of the BBC drama documentary and the then Labour government insisted there was no new evidence to merit of public enquiry:
So far, I have seen nothing today or during my investigations that would cause me to revise the views of my predecessors or previous Governments.
An alternative proposition is that there was a genuine intelligence failure, the invasion was not anticipated, and when it happened news of it did not filter through to the airport in Kuwait.
BA has always maintained that it had no knowledge of the impending invasion of Kuwait and that it would never put its aircraft, passengers and crews at risk. Former BA Chairman Lord King was said to be privately furious that the Foreign Office and security services had failed to warn the airline.
No passenger list has ever been released for the flight and the list remains highly confidential. BA maintains that it is standard procedure to remove passenger lists from its IT systems in the event of incidents of this nature. (When a BOAC aircraft was hijacked in 1970 a full passenger list was released to the press.)
A number of passengers sued BA in different jurisdictions. The airline settled cases brought in the US out of court, citing the cost of litigation. Passengers from France sued the airline and the courts found BA to be negligent and passengers were paid substantial damages. In the UK, attempts to bring the matter to court have been unsuccessful there has been no public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the flight.
Update 23 November 2021
On 23 November 2021, the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss issued a written statement to Parliament confirming that Parliament and the public had been misled about the circumstances surrounding BA149.
This follows the release of previously confidential files to the National Archives. It was confirmed that the UK government had been made aware that the invasion of Kuwait was underway whilst the BA aircraft was en route and this information was not passed on to the airline.
The government reiterated previous denials that the government wanted the flight to land in Kuwait to enable intelligence operatives to enter the country.
The files show that the British Ambassador in Kuwait informed the Resident Clerk (the officer on overnight duty to deal with emergencies) at the FCO in London about reports of an Iraqi incursion into Kuwait around 00:00 GMT on 2 August 1990, while the British Airways flight was en route. The information was passed by the Resident Clerk to the Head of the FCO’s Middle East Department and also to No.10, the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and the Secret Intelligence Service, but not to British Airways.
There was also speculation at the time and since that the flight was used to carry members of UK Special Forces. The files are consistent with the then Minister for Europe’s statement in April 2007 that ‘the Government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever’
The call made by HMA Kuwait has never been publicly disclosed or acknowledged until today. These files show that the existence of the call was not revealed to Parliament and the public. This failure was unacceptable. As the current Secretary of State, I apologise to the House for this, and I express my deepest sympathy to those who were detained and mistreated.
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