BA100: 8. The Day That Changed The World

100 Years Of British Airways: The single worst day in civil aviation history, 11 September 2001.

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British Airways Logo
British Airways Logo (Image Credit: British Airways)

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.

BA, like much of the world, entered the 21st century with a sense of optimism.

There had been some difficult years with the adverse reaction to World Tailfins. The airline was also facing increased competition from low cost carriers and in 1999 reported its worst financial results since 1982.

“21st Century Air Travel”

However, at the turn of the century, there was a cause for optimism.

Under the theme of “21st century air travel” the airline was making significant investments in all of its cabins with entirely new World Traveller Plus and Club World cabins and revamped Club Europe, World Traveller and First Class cabins.

One event of course changed everything. 11 September 2001 was the single worst day in aviation history. The events of that day and its substantial human cost are well known. It had a profound impact on the US psyche and global geopolitics which are still felt to this day.

For BA, there was the immediate impact of the closure of US airspace. 22 BA aircraft were diverted and it took days to fully restore transatlantic flights. US airspace immediately closed to all civil aviation and reopened to domestic airlines two days later.

The Federal Aviation Administration placed an immediate ban on all non-US airlines flying to the US until such time they could be satisfied that security conditions could be met. The FAA gave BA permission to fly to the US again on 15 September 2001.

At the time many wondered whether air travel would ever be the same again with some even speculating that airports would have to be rebuilt to accommodate additional passenger screening processes.

Many security measures were implemented such as installing armour plated cockpit doors and the submission of advance passenger lists to US authorities.

BA subsequently announced a review of its business which became known as “Future Size and Shape”. This resulted in a substantial cut in capacity, thousands of job losses, and numerous cost-cutting initiatives – many of which did not go unnoticed by passengers.

Some projects that were already underway such as improving profitability at Gatwick, opting for smaller capacity Boeing 777 long haul and Airbus A320 aircraft were accelerated. Many long-haul routes were suspended such as Manila and Taipei.

This set the course for BA the rest of the decade with a focus on improving its balance sheet by selling its 25% stake in Qantas and disposing of regional operations, simplifying its aircraft fleet, removing legacy complexity and no significant capacity growth. It was only towards the start of this decade did BA start growing again.

Many at BA’s parent IAG, mindful that Ryanair was able to secure a substantial discount from Boeing for new aircraft after 11 September 2001, are determined that this does not happen again. Put in fairly crude terms, they want the next shock to the aviation industry to be an opportunity, not a problem, for IAG.

“It’s Better To Be There”

Some months after 11 September 2001, BA sought to encourage passengers to fly again.

One such example was a TV advertising campaign “It’s Better To Be There” from early 2002.

An American businessman is featured receiving pitches from British businesses: one despatches its proposal by post and conducts the pitch by telephone. As the American businessman promises to give it due consideration a rival team walks into to conduct their pitch face to face.

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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