BA’s Grand 747 Ambitions For The 1980s and 1990s

Our series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA continues with its grand ambitions for the 747 in the 1980s and 1990s.

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British Airways Boeing 747-400 Aircraft
British Airways Boeing 747-436 Aircraft (Image Credit: British Airways)

Welcome to part three of our seven part series on the story of the Boeing 747 at BA.

In part one we looked at the introduction of the aircraft at BOAC, and in part two the rapid expansion of the 747 network in the 1970s.

The 1980s was a decade of significant change for the airline, under the leadership of Lord King and Colin Marshall. Its corporate identity was revamped ahead of its privatisation in 1987.

In the early 1980s, the airline urgently needed to cut costs. Two Boeing 747-136 aircraft were sold to TWA in 1981. Four new Boeing 747-236 were placed into storage, with two ultimately sold to Malaysian Airlines.

That said, there was continued evolution in the Boeing 747 fleet from the early 1980s.

“The Widest Way To The USA”

One benefit of the Boeing 747 for passengers was that it allowed airlines to introduce new cabins beyond economy and First Class.

After introducing Executive and Club Class for full fare economy passengers, in 1981 BA introduced a dedicated “Super Club” cabin with six abreast seating, dubbed the widest seat in the air.

This would later evolve in to Club World, dubbed the “profit engine” of BA, with the Boeing 747 aircraft being the first to benefit from many innovations and new seats.

British Airways Super Club, November 1981
British Airways Super Club, November 1981

“Get Down Under 3 Hours Quicker”

Modifications to engines also enabled improvements on longer range routes, with BA claiming in 1984 the fastest journey times to Australia, a claim previously made by Qantas.

British Airways Australia Advertisement, December 1984
British Airways Australia Advertisement, December 1984

The Boeing 747-436

Unlike many airlines, BA did not order the Boeing 747-300 nor the Boeing 747SP aircraft. It continued to take delivery of the Boeing 747-236 aircraft until the late 1980s.

The airline also inherited five Boeing 747-200 aircraft following its acquisition of British Caledonian in 1988. These were quickly disposed of due to its lack of compatibility with the BA fleet.

BA placed its first order for the Boeing 747-436 aircraft in 1986, with further orders to follow in 1990 and 1996, taking the total order to 66 aircraft. These were in part to replace the Boeing 747-136 and oldest 747-236 aircraft, and fulfil its significant growth ambitions. BA was, at this time, set on being the major player in global aviation.

The first aircraft arrived in 1989 – footage of BA preparing to take delivery of its first aircraft can be seen in the episode from the 1990 TV series “Airline” below.

Regions initially served by the Boeing 747-436 included Australia (which could now be served with one stop in Singapore or Bangkok), Southeast Asia, Japan, North America and South America. Deliveries of new 747 aircraft continued apace until 1999.

British Airways Poster “London to New York. 7 times daily.”

The Beginning Of The End

During its initial orders BA indicated a willingness to order further 747-436 aircraft and use its options to acquire potential newer versions of the 747.

British Airways Boeing 747 Aircraft, Peter MacDonald Tartan World Tailfin
British Airways Boeing 747 Aircraft, Peter MacDonald Tartan World Tailfin (Image Credit: British Airways)

There were suggestions that subsequent models could accommodate 450 – 600 passengers.

By 1998, events forced BA to reverse its plans.

BA had already taken delivery of the twin engine Boeing 777-200 aircraft. In April and July 1998 – at the same time BA placed its first aircraft order with Airbus – BA cut its Boeing 747 order by 4 and 5 aircraft in favour of further Boeing 777-200 aircraft. This was an acknowledgment by the airline it was facing competitive pressure and needed to focus more on point-to-point, rather than connecting, traffic.

Whilst by the turn of the century the 747 was still very much a significant part of the airline’s fleet at more than 80 aircraft across Gatwick & Heathrow – whose operations included no less than 28 747 return flights to Australia a week – but this was the beginning of the end.

As we would soon learn, the unforeseen events of the 21st century would have a huge impact on the aircraft.

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