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.
The former editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre (feared and admired in equal measure in corridors of power) once told Willie Walsh that stories about BA were guaranteed to make its front page, whereas for its UK rivals, they would not.
BA has been privatised for over 30 years and is indeed now part of a Spanish registered company. It has had Australian, Irish and Spanish CEOs. Much to the irritation of Willie Walsh, everyone will have an opinion on and a sense of ownership of BA, and he really wishes you didn’t.
However, an airline’s national location has always played a role in its identity. Over time, BA has oscillated between an overtly British identity and an ambition to be seen as a global airline.
“British And Proud Of It”
The first BA Negus & Negus livery introduced for BA was amended in 1980 to be simply “British”. However, this was considered too nationalistic in tone.
The subsequent Landor livery, whilst maintaining a strong British identity, was considered controversial by some at the time because BA chose a Californian design firm to create it.
In the 1990s, BA saw itself as a global airline. The most significant illustration of this was of course the World Images tail fins which received a well publicised backlash for its removal of the union flag.
In 1999, BA recruited the American writer PJ O’Rourke to poke fun at British eccentricities and give British viewers a gentle ticking off for not being more proud of their de-facto national carrier.
“The British Simply Know How To Travel”
How countries are perceived by their own residents and visitors does of course vary widely and this is often reflected in airline advertising.
Here in 2000, BA used the strap line “The British simply know how to travel” in its advertising in the United States to highlight the clear difference between BA and US carriers at the time, as illustrated in this advert featuring cricket and strawberries.
(Any international passengers who have flown BA with any degree of frequency, but have never lived here, would think that all Britons do is eat Afternoon Tea – a meal that nobody who actually lives in the UK ever eats.)
A British Service Style
In 2008, BA attempted to define its British service style for the purpose of staff training.
It defined it as “Being British is being proud of our heritage and looking to the future. Valuing all cultures and differences. Being polite, calm and dignified. Delivering a British style of service is about the attitude you have, not necessarily the country you’re from.”
“Made By Britain”
To 2019, and against a still febrile political climate, BA recruited figures from the fields of arts, science and sport to pen a “love letter to Britain” for its centenary year.