On Monday 8 November 2021, there will be a rare moment of public cooperation between two arch rivals.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will each operate special flights from London Heathrow to New York JFK to mark the reopening of the US to passengers from the UK and Europe who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
This may have seemed unthinkable 18 months ago. For the two airlines, it is no exaggeration to say the reopening of the biggest long haul air corridor in the world is a matter of commercial survival.
In 2019, before COVID-19 ravaged the airline industry, nearly 5 million passengers flew between London and New York airports.
The route is often the first entry point for new long haul operators, whether it be Norwegian or, more recently, JetBlue.
It is also the showcase for many innovations, successful or not, such as fully flat beds in business class or all business class airlines.
The Yankee Clipper
It was in July 1939 that Pan American World Airways, the closest the US has had to a flagship global carrier, completed the first passenger flight across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton with its “Yankee Clipper” flying boat.
The trip was completed in 27 and a half hours with a flight time of 19 hours and 34 minutes. The flying boat departed Port Washington Long Island, stopping en route at Shediac, New Brunswick; Botwood, Newfoundland, and Foynes, Ireland. A mere 19 passengers were onboard. Regular services would operate just once a week.
Virgin Atlantic – now well into its teenage years – was firmly ensconced at London Heathrow. It had signed up as a launch customer for 6 Airbus A380 aircraft with “industry sources” touting the prospect of casinos and gyms on board a “flying hotel”. The airline was expanding to India with its first route to Delhi, and taking delivery of new Airbus A340 and Boeing 747-400 aircraft.
Today, Saturday 2 March 2019, marks the 50th anniversary since Concorde’s first flight.
The French prototype Concorde 001 completed its maiden flight in Toulouse on 2 March 1969. The flight was crewed by flight Captain Andre Turcat, co-pilot Jacques Guignard, flight engineer Michel Retif and mechanical engineer Henri Perrier. On its first flight the aircraft was limited to flying at 250 knots and 10,000 ft.
The British prototype Concorde 002 completed its first flight on 9 April 1969. Piloted by Brian Trubshaw and co-pilot John Cochrane, the aircraft flew from Bristol Fulton airport to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. London received its first sighting of the aircraft two months later when it flew over Central London on the Queen’s official birthday.
The history of Concorde is of course well documented. Events are taking place at a number of sites today to mark the anniversary. Aerospace Bristol will also be holding events throughout the year.
Aviation has always attracted dreamers and it would remiss to not encourage progress. However, we live in industry where efficiency and discipline, in good times and bad, rules.
Even if a new aircraft was to come to fruition it is unlikely that the major airline groups would be prepared to buy it. Nor would major corporate clients be willing to give the revenue guarantees it would require to be profitable. The era of overt corporate largesse is over.
The future is, sadly, not speed, but flying as efficiently as possible for both the airlines and those paying for the tickets.
For day flights, speed is less important with in-flight connectivity. For night flights, whilst some way short of your own bedroom, there are of course reasonably comfortable flat beds in business class.
Progress will be linking new city pairs that were previously not feasible either due to aircraft efficiency or distance. For the next innovation, all eyes are on Qantas to see whether it will order aircraft capable of flying from London to Melbourne and Sydney non-stop.
Forty years ago this year, a now largely forgotten airline invented what is arguably the single most influential force on passenger behaviour in air travel.
The airline was a small regional US airline called Texas International Airlines. It’s invention was the frequent flyer programme.
In 1978, the US airline market was deregulated. This allowed US airlines to choose their own routes and set their own fares without Government approval. Established airlines facing newer upstarts turned to incentive programmes to revive falling revenues and profits.
By today’s standards, it was relatively unsophisticated. Passengers earned paper coupons which could be pooled to earn free flights. Texas International Airlines’ programme did not last long as the airline was acquired by Continental in 1982.
American Airlines launched its “AAdvantage” programme on 1 May 1981, which American widely credits as the first true frequent flyer programme. At the time of launch, it wasn’t certain it would last. However, all major US airlines quickly followed suit. And they were an instant success.
The basic premise was as it is today: Provide miles to passengers who fly on your airline at someone else’s expense which can be redeemed for free flights and other benefits.
It is the perfect dovetail of a free flight that would otherwise cost thousands of pounds for the passenger, which the airline can provide at minimal marginal cost.
The technology then was of course much less advanced than today. The New York Times in 1982 reports of membership packs taking weeks to arrive and miles recorded with the aid of paper log books and multi-coloured coupons:
A call to the airline is usually all it takes to register, and within three to four weeks members receive packets with all the necessary supplies. T.W.A. uses pink-patterned stickers that are attached to the ticket at the boarding gate, Republic Airways provides program members with a “passport” that is validated each time they book a flight, and Eastern Airlines mails its members “ionosphere blue checkbooks” filled with coupons.
By 1984, an estimated 75% of US business travellers were members of a frequent flyer programme. The programmes soon expanded their reach with the ability to earn miles from car hire and hotels, and redeem miles on international partner airlines.
Even without the aid of internet blogs and forums passengers quickly learned how to exploit the programmes to maximum advantage, as reports the The New York Times in 1984:
The programs have proved so successful since their introduction in 1981, say industry analysts, that loyalty is now verging on fanaticism for a growing number of passengers. Those most seriously bitten by the free-ticket bug even design business trips with the incentives in mind, to the point of flying to unnecessary cities just to increase the haul.
“I hear passengers in airports talking about how many miles they have on this or that program,” says David Aiken, a travel agent with Inverness Travel in Manhattan. “Travelers are very aware of what they are entitled to, and compare notes about the expanded range of frequent-flier tie-ins or add- ons. It’s like remembering how much money you have in the bank.”
Business travelers “will call and demand an airline,” says Steve Zinaman, senior vice president of Travel Horizons Unlimited, also in Manhattan. “They will refuse to fly another carrier even if the timing and fare are better, just so they can add to their mileage programs. That is real loyalty.”
As the programmes gained in popularity and airlines competed to win business travellers, they became more complex and convoluted. Again the New York Times reports:
As the programs have expanded they have become extraordinarily intricate, and the award descriptions can sometimes be baffling.
For example, a T.W.A. frequent flier who has flown 50,000 miles may choose: “One free first class round-trip ticket to any Eastern domestic or international destination. Plus a first class round-trip upgrade for the price of a round-trip coach ticket for a traveling companion. For international travel this bonus award also includes one free first class round-trip ticket on connecting T.W.A. or Eastern flights to the nearest Eastern gateway city, and a first class round-trip upgrade for the price of a round-trip coach ticket on the same T.W.A. or Eastern connecting flight for a traveling companion.”
There is a footnote: the two passengers must travel together.
“There’s no way to rein it in any more,” said one exasperated official of a leading airline, which offers its own complex program. “It’s a monster.”
And not everyone was enamoured with the concept. Two groups in particular: the companies who actually paid for the tickets; and the Internal Revenue Service who questioned whether the benefits should be taxed.
Unsurprisingly for a notoriously litigious country, one US corporation launched a law suit:
A Texas-based real estate company, Southmark/Envicon Capital Corporation, sued seven airlines in April, saying the carriers were committing “commercial bribery” by giving benefits to employees without the permission of the employers and with the intent of influencing the employees on behalf of the airline.
The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhatttan on behalf of all similarly situated companies, also charged the airlines with interfering with the fiduciary responsibility of employees by inducing them to book roundabout flights that carry more mileage credits, for the employees’ benefit and to the employers’ disadvantage.
The action further asserted that the airlines, by limiting the beneficiaries to individuals, were wrongfully preventing the awards from flowing to the rightful parties, the companies paying for the tickets. The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing the airlines from excluding companies as frequent flier beneficiaries and seeks the return of money Southmark says has been lost through increased travel costs.
Today, Saturday 9 February 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Boeing 747.
The first Boeing 747 aircraft, named “City Of Everett”, took off from Everett in Washington State.
Pan American World Airways was the first airline to operate passenger flights, from New York to London on 21 January 1970. Trans World Airlines followed shortly afterwards, operating the aircraft on domestic flights between New York and Los Angeles.
Aside from meeting Federal Aviation Administration requirements, the immediate concern was the ability of airports to handle the aircraft, at the time the biggest passenger jet in service. Both London Heathrow and New York JFK had to implement makeshift arrangements to handle the aircraft.
It may seem strange to think now, but there were also doubts as to whether airlines could fill the aircraft with passengers.
One of the two immediate predecessor airlines to British Airways, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) began passenger flights from London to New York on 14 April 1971. It had been delayed by a year, partly due to an industrial dispute with its pilots.
The 747 has of course been the mainstay of BOAC’s successor airline and its main UK rival Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic began passenger flights from London Gatwick to New York in 1984, using a leased second-hand Boeing 747-200.
BA ordered the Boeing 747-200 shortly after the airline came into existence in 1974. These, along with BOAC’s original Boeing 747s remained with BA until the 1990s. BA then placed a substantial order for the Boeing 747-400 in 1986 and 1990.
At its peak BA had 57 Boeing 747-400 aircraft in service, all delivered between 1989 and 1999. As of February 2019, there are now 34 aircraft in service. The precise retirement schedule is under constant review, but current plans are that the aircraft will be retired by February 2024. Virgin Atlantic also plans to retire its last Boeing 747s before then.
The Boeing 747 used to touch all parts of BA’s network. It has also operated many Royal flights, including Prince Charles to Hong Kong for the official handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. 747 charter flights for sports teams include “Sweet Chariot” for the England Rugby team to the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, “Pride” for Team GB to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and “Air Force Scrum” for the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa in 2009,
The Boeing 747 now largely operates exclusively on North American routes and some routes to Africa.
Two events sealed the fate of the Boeing 747 at BA.
In the late 1990s when BA faced falling yields due to price competition, it decided to opt for the smaller Boeing 777-200 which is now the largest single long-haul aircraft type at the airline. The financial crisis of 2008 also saw a number of aircraft retired.
BA is now the last operator of Boeing 747 passenger flights at Heathrow. There is a very long list of airlines that no longer operate the 747, either to Heathrow or at all, including Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and United.
Whilst the 747s of today may not have the lounges of the original aircraft of the 1970s and they are some way behind more modern aircraft, there are still many aspects that are popular with passengers, namely the upper deck and the nose. Short of a major economic shock prompting BA to radically change its fleet plans, there is a good five years in the Boeing 747 yet.
This year marks 40 years since the introduction of business class.
That’s if you believe Qantas’ claim that it was the first airline to introduce a dedicated business class cabin.
It was not the first airline to introduce a class between economy and First Class. BA introduced “Executive Class” in 1977, later to become “Super Club”. Pan Am introduced its “Clipper Class” on 29 October 1978. That year, Delta also introduced “Medallion Service”. However, this was essentially designated economy seating with enhanced amenities for passengers purchasing full fare tickets.
The basis for Qantas’ claim seems to it introduced a dedicated cabin on its Boeing 747s in 1979, as per the advert below for the UK press in 1983.
Qantas promised a dedicated check-in, priority baggage handling, a separate cabin with dedicated cabin crew, wider seats and a choice of meals served on fine bone china.
This week marked 15 years since Concorde completed its final commercial passenger flight.
On 24 October 2003, members of Concorde’s exclusive club of regular patrons such as the late Sir David Frost and Dame Joan Collins gathered in the Concorde Room at New York JFK. After a farewell speech from Concorde Captain Mike Bannister, they boarded BA2 for the final time, to land at Heathrow before the world’s media.
15 years on Captain Mike Bannister gathered with guests in The Design Museum earlier this week to mark the launch of a limited edition timepiece with Bremont.
Designed in collaboration with BA in advance of the airline’s centenary and the 50th anniversary of Concorde’s maiden flight in 2019, each watch features aluminium from one of BA’s seven Concordes, G-BOAB – pictured here at Heathrow. There are three editions, limited to 500 in total, which are handsomely priced from “just” £9,495 to £17,995.
A more affordable means of remembering Concorde is a recently published book “Supersonic: The Design And Lifestyle Of Concorde”.
It is written by Lawrence Azerrad who founded Los Angeles based design studio LAD Design and has gathered hundreds of Concorde related artefacts. The book focuses less on the engineering and the politics behind the Concorde, and more on the evolution of its marketing and the design of its cabin interiors and branding by both Air France and BA.
It features a foreword by Sir Terence Conran who, in conjunction with factorydesign designed the last Concorde cabin interior for BA and the Concorde Room in New York JFK and the former Concorde Room in London Heathrow Terminal 4.
At a time when there are forces at work determined to take the Western world backwards, Concorde does reflect a spirit of international co-operation and optimism about the future. It is unlikely that supersonic transatlantic travel will return. But progress remains in other areas. There are more US cities that can be reached directly from London then ever before. This time next year, we should know whether direct flights from London to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney could be launched.
Back to the book, Lawrence Azerrad will be in conversation with designer Sebastian Conran at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington on Friday 8 February 2019.
“Supersonic – The Design And Lifestyle Of Concorde” is published by Prestel Publishing and is on sale now.
Today, Thursday 4 October 2018, marks 60 years since the first passenger jet service from London to New York.
One of British Airways predecessor airlines, BOAC, flew two de Havilland Comet 4 aircraft between London and New York International Airport, Idlewild.
This was a mere 24 hours after the Port Authority of New York granted approval for passenger jet services following concerns over noise. It was also less than a month after the aircraft had been delivered to the airline and it had received its certificate or air worthiness.
The westbound flight left London at 09:55 local time and landed in New York at 15:15 local time after a refuelling stop for one hour and ten minutes in Gander, Newfoundland. The total journey time was 10 hours and 20 minutes
There were 31 passengers out of a capacity for 48 on the aircraft. They included Sir Gerald D’Erlanger, Chairman of the board of BOAC. He carried a letter from the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Denis Truscott to Mayor Wagner of New York. There were 12 paying passengers, many of whom had made reservations in anticipation of passenger jet services years ago and were only called to travel at very short notice. There were two classes of travel, First and Deluxe.
The aircraft carried 15 crew members, instead of the usual 8. One of the cabin crew members was Peggy Thorne who made a return visit to British Airways yesterday.