A History Of British Airways Through The Decades

London Air Travel » A History Of British Airways Through The Decades

British Airways, "The World's Favourite Airline", 1983.

To mark BA’s centenary in 2019, we published a 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

You can review the full countdown in numerical order or by theme.

We have also grouped most articles by decade below:

A Primer

As a primer, here is a brief history of BA and its predecessor airlines which include Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA.

1910s

The first flights by Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd from London to Paris on 25 August 1919, to which BA traces its origins.

1920s

In 1924 the assets of Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd and other defunct airlines were combined to form Imperial Airways.

Imperial Airways introduced “First Class” which did not really came into its own on long-haul aircraft until the 1980s and 1990s.

On 1 May 1927, Imperial Airways introduced its “Silver Wing” service from London to Paris, the first luxury in-flight service.

India was first served by Imperial Airways in 1929 and is today one of BA’s most important long-haul markets.

1930s

The Art Of The Poster. From the 1930s onwards, Imperial Airways and subsequently BOAC and BEA used the medium of the poster to sell the relatively new concept of civil aviation.

The Speedbird was Theyre Lee-Elliott’s logo designed for Imperial Airways in 1932 and was subsequently retained by BOAC.

In 1934 Imperial Airways began the first services, in conjunction with Qantas Empire Airways, from the UK to Australia. The earliest trips took up to 12 and a half days. This is how flying from the UK to Australia has evolved in 85 years.

The original British Airways formed in 1935, operating from Gatwick. Both British Airways and Imperial Airways were nationalised to form British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1939.

The Imperial Airways Empire Terminal, Victoria, opened in 1939 and took passengers to Croydon Airport and by train to Southampton to flying boat services. It closed in 1980.

1940s

Following the resumption of commercial aviation after the Second World War, BOAC developed new services to North America and around the world services. British European Airways also began short-haul services in 1946.

It was also in 1946, BOAC operated its first services from what was to become London Heathrow Airport and BA’s principal hub.

1950s

The 1950s saw the start of the jet age with the first transatlantic jet flights from London to New York.

“Tomorrow Is Theirs” a promotional film by BOAC from the 1950s.

On 31 January 1952, Her Majesty The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, bid farewell to King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret at London airport before departing on a BOAC aircraft with Prince Philip for a world tour of Africa, Australia and New Zealand. This trip was cut short following the death of King George VI. Princess Elizabeth returned a week later from Kenya on the same BOAC aircraft as Queen Elizabeth II.

On 19 May 1953, British European Airways opened the London Waterloo Air Terminal. This had a short life and in 1957 BEA moved to the West London Air Terminal. Both of these have now been demolished.

One of the darkest moments in British sporting history, the Munich Air Disaster of 1958.

In 1958, BOAC beat Pan American World Airways to operate the first passenger jet transatlantic flight from London to New York. New York would become BA’s most important long-haul destination.

1960s

“Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major” A mildly unsettling BOAC TV advertisement from the 1960s.

“Trident Over Europe” The short-haul aircraft serving BEA and BA from 1962 to 1986.

In the 1960s, BEA and BOAC worked with fashion designers to introduce dedicated uniforms. Here’s how the BA staff uniform has evolved since the days of BEA and BOAC.

In 1964, BOAC introduced the much loved British made VC10 aircraft “Swift, silent, serene”.

On 8 April 1968, a BOAC Boeing 707 aircraft experienced an engine failure shortly after take off at London Heathrow.  Of the 116 passengers and 11 crew, 5 people were killed including stewardess Barbara Jane Harrison who received a posthumous award of The George Cross for her bravery in assisting with the evacuation.

1970s

BEA, BOAC and a number of smaller airlines came together under the British Airways board in 1972 and merged to become British Airways in 1974. The 1970s saw the introduction of the most iconic aircraft, Concorde, and the single most transformative long-haul aircraft, the Boeing 747.

Opened in 1970 and originally known as the BOAC Terminal, Terminal 7 at New York JFK is the only terminal owned and operated by an international airline.

A BOAC Super VC10 aircraft was hijacked at Dawson’s Field in September 1970. The incident prompted a radical review of aviation security and the implementation of greater screening of baggage, reviews of passenger lists and metal detectors at airports.

On 14 April 1971, BOAC began passenger flights from London to New York with the Queen Of The Skies, the Boeing 747. This was to remain in service at BA until 2024, but was retired prematurely in the summer of 2020 due to COVID-19.

“We never forgot you have a choice.” This was the promise of British Caledonian, established as a “second force” to compete against BA in 1971. it was subsequently acquired by BA in 1988.

The Negus Livery was the first official BA livery following the merger of BEA and BOAC in 1974.

In 1975, British Airways was granted a Coat Of Arms which feature on aircraft today.

Turn up at the gate ten minutes before departure without a ticket and be guaranteed a seat. The Shuttle, BA’s turn-up-and-go service on UK domestic routes launched in 1975.

Cabin crew member Rosalind Hanby was the face of British Airways during the 1970s and early 1980s, before leaving the airline to pursue a career in television.

In 1976 Concorde entered into service, initially operating from London Heathrow to Bahrain. This was the flagship aircraft, and never to be replaced brand halo, of BA until it completed its final scheduled flight in 2003.

1980s

The 1980s was a decade of huge upheaval. A new management, brand identity and livery, advertising agency and huge changes to staffing saw the airline revamped to prepare it for privatisation.

By the end of the decade, BA was in doubt that it had the potential to be a major force in global aviation.

Lord King Of Wartnaby, known for his brusque manner and lack of patience with journalists, was appointed Chairman in 1981.

In March 1981, BA introduced its first true branded long-haul business class cabin. “Super Club” This was the widest seat in business class, at least in the 1980s.

The BA Executive Club was launched in 1982 with an initial emphasis on exclusivity, it has since become a hugely powerful marketing tool and business in its own right, with many millions of participating members.

Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, was appointed CEO of BA in 1983. Along with Lord King, Lord Marshall was credited with the turnaround of BA in the 1980s and acting as foil to Lord King.

In the early 1980s, BA began one of the most famous advertising agency / client relationships in the world with Saatchi & Saatchi.

This led to the claim to be “The World’s Favourite Airline” – one of the most powerful airline advertising slogans of all time used by BA between 1983 and 2001.

“Manhattan” was Saatchi’s first major work for BA, a big budget cinematic TV advertisement, and a very bold signal of BA’s intention to be “The World’s Favourite Airline.”

In 1983, BA introduced the Boeing 757 which was the workhorse of BA’s short-haul fleet in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The Flower Duet” by Léo Delibes from the opera Lakmé was first introduced in 1984 and having been remixed many times is the official theme of the airline.

The livery designed by Landor Associates in the early 1980s to revamp BA’s image and prepare the airline for privatisation.

On 22 June 1984, Virgin Atlantic launched its inaugural flight from London Gatwick to Newark. Virgin’s image of fun and informality was a sharp contrast to that of BA and the two airlines have had an often rancorous relationship.

“The Sun Never Sets On British Airways” From 1985 when BA starts to promote not just its global reach and network, but also its in-flight service.

“Putting People First” The training programme for tens of thousands of BA staff in the 1980s.

British Airtours Flight 28M in 1985 which resulted in the loss of 55 lives when the aircraft experienced an uncontained engine failure after take-off.

Dreamflight, is an independent charity founded by former BA staff members Patricia Pearce MBE and Derek Pereira in 1986. It raises funds to take hundreds of children with a serious illness or disability on a chartered BA 747 to Orlando, Florida.

1987 was the year of BA’s privatisation as “Britain’s Highest Flying Company” and the start of the “Wall Street” era which was reflected in much of its advertising at the time.

Following its acquisition of British Caledonian, BA inherited an order for the Airbus A320 family aircraft which entered into service in 1988 and was to become workhorse of BA’s short-haul operation today.

In 1988, a new brand for its long-haul business class cabin, Club World which is the “profit engine” of the airline and the source of some of its biggest innovations.

Also in 1988 BA introduced the Club Europe brand for its short-haul business class cabin. Depending on your point of view, it is a poor substitute for First Class on US on Asian airlines or a welcome insurance policy when flying short-haul in Europe.

BA’s 1989 advertising campaign, a period of self-confidence when BA sought to be a truly global airline.

One of the greatest airline TV advertisements of all time, and one of the most effective use of non-airline imagery by an airline, “The Face” from 1989.

1990s

The 1990s was a volatile decade. The airline found itself caught up the 1990 Gulf War. It also had to contend with the rise of low cost airlines. A major brand overhaul to reposition the airline as a caring global airline, proved to be very poorly received in the UK.

“Airline” The BBC’s four part fly-on-the-wall documentary series on BA from 1990 as it prepares to face new competition and take delivery of its first Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

In 1990, BA introduced probably one of the most frustrating yet endearing aircraft for both passengers and crew, the Boeing 767.

“Arrive Home” An advertising campaign highlighting one of the best aspects of business travel – getting back home.

“The last flight to Kuwait” One of the single most controversial BA flights in its history. The circumstances surrounding flight BA149 to Kuwait which departed Heathrow on 1 August 1990, remain subject to dispute and are unlikely to ever be resolved.

Do you believe in Concorde? Could you really fly on Concorde to visit Santa Claus in Lapland?

“Surprise, Surprise” A viral cinema stunt conjured up Saatchi & Saatchi in 1991 to market BA Holidays.

Faced with a collapse in demand after the 1990 Gulf War, BA gave away every single seat on every international flight to and from the UK on one day in 1991 in The World’s Biggest Offer.

In 1991, BA continued to introduce branded cabins with World Traveller, its long-haul economy cabin.

In the early 1990s, BA attempted to create a dual London hub at London Gatwick, dubbing it “The hub without the hubbub.” This was unwound from the end of the decade.

“In The Court Of Lord King” Former BA Chairman Lord King was known for his brusque manner with journalists. When BA allowed the Financial Times in 1992 to visit Lord King’s office in St James’s, what could possibly go wrong?

“Where Is Everybody?” asks BA in a post-apocalypse TV advertising campaign from 1994.

2 Engines 4 Long-Haul. An aircraft that is hard for passengers to love, but the twin-engine Boeing 777-200 became the mainstay of BA’s long-haul fleet from the mid 1990s.

On 10 November 1995 easyJet launched its first flight from London Luton to Glasgow. This began BA’s 25 year battle to compete against low cost airlines.

From 1996, not all BA advertisements age well with time.

In the 1990s, BA introduced the Terraces lounge concept. This is how British Airways lounges have evolved over the past 40 years.

In 1997, under the codename “Project Utopia”, BA’s launched a new identity for the airline, but it was most known for the ill-fated and much misunderstood World Images tailfins.

This also saw the introduction the Chatham Dockyard livery, first introduced on Concorde, and now applied across all of BA’s fleet.

The adverse reaction to the World Images tailfins highlights how BA has not always had an easy relationship with its home nation and in the 1990s even recruited American writer PJ O’Rourke to give the British public a gentle ticking off for not being more proud of its home carrier. Here’s how BA’s British Identity has evolved over time.

In 1998 BA opened its £200m Waterside Headquarters, near Heathrow designed by architect Niels Torp.

“An Airline Adventure” “Go” was the low cost airline launched by BA at London Stansted in 1998 under the leadership of Barbara Cassani. It was sold to 3i three years later.

In 1999, the first BA liveried flight operated from London City Airport the Royal Docks, East London to Sheffield. It would subsequently become a significant base for BA’s subsidiary BA CityFlyer Ltd.

The Franchises. Franchising used to be a major part of BA’s business with up to 11 airlines adopting the BA name and livery. By the late 1990s up to 6 million passengers flew on franchise airlines. Today there are just two as many struggled to compete against low cost airlines.

2000s

After one of the single most significant events in aviation history, 11 September 2001, BA undertook a review of its business known as “Future Size and Shape”. 

It had far reaching effects. BA began downsizing at Gatwick. It reshaped its Heathrow network, reducing the number of 1/2 stop flights in favour of codeshares with partner airlines. Concorde was withdrawn from service in 2003. BA significantly reduced its presence in UK regions.

World Traveller Plus is BA’s long-haul premium economy cabin introduced in 2000.

KLM was the airline that BA should have, but repeatedly failed, to merge with. Talks fell through for a second time in 2000 and KLM ultimately merged with Air France.

BA2069 to Nairobi. In December 2000, a passenger entered the flight deck of a Boeing 747 flying from Gatwick to Nairobi and seized control of the aircraft. It subsequently landed safely in Nairobi.

The single worst day in aviation history 11 September 2001 and its impact on BA.

This prompted BA to suspend many former routes.

When BA’s Boeing 747 First Class cabin featured in the 2002 James Bond film “Die Another Day”.

Go to sleep in New York. Wake up in London. BA’s Club World Sleeper Service.

How an industrial dispute at BA’s catering supplier Gate Gourmet grounded BA at Heathrow for days at the height of the summer in 2005 and cost the airline £40m.

Willie Walsh, the combative former CEO of Aer Lingus was appointed CEO in 2005 and is now CEO of its parent company, IAG until his planned retirement in September 2020.

ba.com Have You Clicked Yet? How BA learned to embrace the internet at the turn of the century.

In 2005, Bartle Bogle Hegarty won the BA advertising account from M&C Saatchi. Living by the mantra “When the world zigs, Zag”, here’s a look at their most significant work for BA.

In 2007, BA sold its regional airline BA Connect to Flybe earning itself the moniker “London Airways”. A year later, it suspended its last remaining long-haul flight from Manchester, to New York JFK.

Flight BA38 A Boeing 777-200 which landed short of the runway at London Heathrow in January 2008 on its arrival from Beijing.

“So calm, you’ll simply flow through”. BA’s promise for its new home at London Heathrow Terminal 5 which opened in chaotic fashion in March 2008.

OpenSkies was BA’s “boutique” premium airline launched by Dale Moss and operated between Paris Orly and New York from June 2008 for nearly ten years. Other routes such as Amsterdam – New York and Paris – Washington proved to be short-lived.

“Opportunities” BA’s post Lehman Brothers collapse advertising campaign to encourage passengers to fly again.

Club World London City, launched in 2009, BA’s all business class service from London City to New York JFK. This became hugely popular with passengers when it launched. However, plans to expand the service to other US cities never came to fruition and, in all likelihood, it will be suspended in the medium term.

2010s

After a decade of contraction, and BA falling behind other European airlines in consolidation, it began to catch-up. It merged with Iberia in 2011 and after its merger with bmi in 2012 was able to grow significantly at Heathrow.

The Special Relationship. After two unsuccessful attempts and significant protests by Virgin Atlantic, BA finally sealed its transatlantic joint-business with American Airlines.

The merger of BA and Iberia in 2011, under the umbrella of its new parent company International Airlines Group, which now exerts considerable influence over the airline.

“The Friendly Independent”, bmi British Midland which used to give BA a run for its money on UK domestic routes until it was acquired by BA’s parent company IAG from Lufthansa in 2012.

“Don’t Fly” BA tells its customers to stay at home during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“Look Up” An interactive billboard advertisement that identified BA aircraft flying overhead to celebrate the magic of flying.

In 2013, BA took delivery of the first of twelve Airbus A380 aircraft and it is one of BA’s most popular long-haul aircraft for passengers.

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