BA100: 25. The Special Relationship

100 Years Of British Airways: BA’s long search for a joint-venture partner in its most important long-haul market, North America.

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge, Miami, Views of the apron
American Airlines Miami (Image Credit: London Air Travel)

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.

Ever since the VC10 and Boeing 707 aircraft allowed for regular non-stop flights from London to the USA, North America has been a very important market for BOAC and BA.

BOAC North America Advert 1970s
BOAC North America Advert 1970s

Today, it is the most important market for BA. Aside from economic and cultural links between the UK and the US, BA has geography on its side as Heathrow is well positioned to pick up connecting traffic from mainland Europe.

However, it took BA a long time to secure a US transatlantic partner which is vital for offering connections and assisting with the distribution of flights in the local US markets.

Growth in US had also been stymied by bilateral agreements between the UK and the US. In spite of the USA’s self-styled image as the land of the free, international interest in the US domestic aviation market is limited due to foreign ownership restrictions on US airlines.

“The Pittsburgh Connection”

In 1993, BA acquired a share in what was then USAir and the two airlines formed a joint-venture.

BA launched daily flights between London Gatwick and Pittsburgh using a USAir Boeing 767 in BA livery and staffed by USAir cabin crew in BA uniforms to connect to over 70 USAir destinations in Pittsburgh. Further services were launched to Baltimore in October 1993 and Charlotte in January 1994.

However, the joint-venture proved to be short-lived with USAir considering it to be unfairly favourable towards BA. After BA declined to renegotiate the terms of the joint-venture, it ended in 1997 with BA disposing of its interest in USAir.

“No Way BA/AA”

After the failure of the USAir partnership, BA turned again to its larger US rival American Airlines.

However, it took a long time for BA and American to secure regulatory approval for a joint-venture.

In 1999, a three year long effort by BA and American to secure regulatory approval for a joint-venture proved futile. In 2002, BA and American balked at US regulator demands to hand-over 224 weekly take off and landing slots to new competitors. 

In 2010, in spite of vociferous protests from Virgin Atlantic, which once again emblazoned its aircraft with “No Way BA/AA”, BA and American finally secured regulatory approval with relatively modest concessions.

This was due to the liberalisation of the EU-US transatlantic market in 2008 and the rescinding of the Bermuda II treaty which restricted access to Heathrow to American, BA, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.

After the launch of the joint-venture, BA has launched new services from London Heathrow to San Diego, Austin, San Jose, New Orleans, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Charleston. More routes are expected to follow. 

Although many BA frequent flyers questioned the merits of the airline partnering with an airline that did used to have a significantly inferior in-flight product to BA, American has made significant investments to renew its fleet and upgrade its aircraft, particularly in business class and with the introduction of premium economy.

Today, the joint-venture has given American Airlines and BA a very strong position in the US transatlantic market. The combined scheduling strength on major routes from London such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami has undoubtedly had an adverse effect on Virgin Atlantic.

Further developments are expected with the possibility of American Airlines moving some flights into London Heathrow Terminal 5. American Airlines and BA will also co-locate at New York JFK Terminal 8 from 2022.

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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