BA100: 38. Competing Against Low-Cost Airlines

100 Years Of British Airways: BA’s 25 year battle to compete against the rise and rise of low cost airlines.

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British Airways "Relaxed Trainer" Advert 2012
British Airways “Relaxed Trainer” Advert 2012

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

Twenty years or so ago, if you took a flight in BA Euro Traveller you’d be served a complimentary meal plated on china and offered unlimited drinks from the bar.

Regardless of the fare purchased you’d also have a generous luggage allowance and be able to select a seat for free.

All that has changed since. The reason? The rise and rise of low cost airlines in Europe which, it is no exaggeration to say, has completely revolutionised travel in Europe.

20 years ago easyJet had just one route at London Gatwick, now it has around 50% of slots at the airport.

It is conventional wisdom that the network legacy airlines have aped low cost airlines. They certainly have adopted many aspects of their business model. Some of this is in a good way. There was a time when a one-way fare would cost little different from a return fare and fares came with Saturday night stay restrictions.

Low cost airlines have also adopted many aspects of legacy network airlines. They introduced allocated seating, when it used to an absolute free-for-all on boarding, introduced more services to primary airports, added priority ground facilities and smarted up their image. easyJet is also planning to introduce its own frequent flyer currency.

BA has for 20 years sought to differentiate itself from low cost airlines in its advertising, with mixed success.

“There Are Other Ways, Then There’s British Airways” (2003)

The timing of this advert was unfortunate as it had to be pulled as BA experienced unofficial industrial action at Heathrow at the time it aired.

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BA100: 39. The Airbus A380 Aircraft

100 Years Of British Airways: BA’s small, but perfectly formed, fleet of 12 Airbus A380 aircraft.

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British Airways Airbus A380 Heathrow
British Airways Airbus A380 Heathrow (Image Credit: Heathrow)

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

British Airways was certainly late to the Airbus A380 party.

It was on 18 March 2008, flight SQ308 arrived at London Heathrow from Singapore Changi airport marking the beginning of scheduled Airbus A380 flights between London Heathrow and Singapore.

Singapore Airlines has always prided itself on industry firsts, so it was natural that it would be the first airline to operate the aircraft.

Emirates and Qantas soon followed at London Heathrow. As did Etihad, Korean Air, Malaysian Airlines, Qatar Airways and Thai Airways.

It wasn’t until five years later in 2013 did BA take delivery of the first of 12 Airbus A380 aircraft. This was of course the first long-haul aircraft BA ordered from Airbus.

British Airways Airbus A380 Collage
British Airways Airbus A380 Collage

The aircraft now operates year-round from London Heathrow to Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore and Washington Dulles. It also operates on a seasonal basis to Boston, Chicago and Vancouver.

It’s a relatively small fleet compared to the Boeing 787 and 777, but it’s a popular aircraft with passengers, particularly for its First Class cabin. World Traveller Plus and World Traveller are also relatively comfortable compared to other aircraft.

Ever since BA took delivery of the aircraft there had been speculation whether it would order more. That has now been settled. Its options to acquire seven more new aircraft have expired. It had explored leasing second-hand aircraft but the costs of conversion are considered too high.

Whilst BA was one of the last airlines to take delivery of the A380, it is perfectly feasible that, along with Emirates, BA may be one of the last operators of the aircraft.

Air France has chosen to retire its fleet early, rather than refurbish aircraft. Lufthansa is to also hand back aircraft to Airbus. Many airlines such as Malaysia Airlines and Qantas have reduced Airbus A380 services to Heathrow. Qantas clearly now has other priorities, with ultra long-range aircraft. Airbus confirmed earlier this year that it is to end production of the aircraft in 2021 after Emirates decided to reduce its outstanding orders.

The launch of the aircraft, dubbed a “flying hotel” at the time, generated a huge amount of hype. And this is one where BA can claim to have got one over Virgin Atlantic. Virgin generated a huge amount of PR with an order of 6 aircraft in 2000 and promises of childrens’ play areas, gyms, showers and games arcades. 

Without any hint of irony Sir Richard Branson quipped in 2005: “To be perfectly honest, it would be quite nice if BA were to buy some A380s as well – because it would support British aerospace and it would support Europe.”

Last year, Virgin finally cancelled its entire A380 order.

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BA100: 40. Not Everything Ages Well

100 Years Of British Airways: Not everything ages well, a controversial advert for the Club World cradle seat in 1996.

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British Airways Club World Advertisement 1996
British Airways Club World Advertisement 1996

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

The UK advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority has recently banned two adverts for Philadelphia cheese and Volkswagen because they breached new advertising rules on gender stereotypes.

Under new rules introduced this year “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

What would the Advertising Standards Authority of today made of this BA advert from 1996?

The advert depicts a mother holding a baby, but with the face of an older businessman superimposed over the baby’s face. The text of the advert reads “The new Club World cradle seat. Lullaby not included.”

Many female passengers at the time wrote to the airline to complain it was demeaning to cabin crew.

BA has been far from alone in this regard. There are things Virgin has done in the past that look absolutely cringeworthy today. It can be said with confidence that if this advert was run today the airline would be in teeth of a social media storm.

British Airways Club World Cradle Seat Advert 1996
British Airways Club World Cradle Seat Advert 1996

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BA100: 41. The British Airways Coat Of Arms

100 Years Of British Airways: The British Airways coat of arms, granted to the airline in 1975.

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British Airways Coat Of Arms
British Airways Coat Of Arms (Image Credit: British Airways)

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

British Airways was granted a coat of arms in 1975.

The central shield of BA’s coat of arms features a quarter union flag which appeared on the first two British Airways liveries, Negus and Landor.

The shield is supported by a winged horse and a winged lion. The lion, as the heraldic symbol of England is shown with wings to reflect flying and a crown to reflect supremacy.

Above the shield is a helmet, topped with an astral cloud and a full sun. The motto is “To Fly. To Serve”

The coat of arms also featured on the tail fin of the Landor livery which was introduced in 1984.

British Airways Coat Of Arms - Aircraft Tailfin
British Airways Coat Of Arms – Aircraft Tailfin (Image Credit: British Airways)

The coat of arms was removed from the livery when the Project Utopia and then Chatham Dockyard livery was introduced in 1997.

However, following a brand relaunch in 2011 when companies tracing their heritage was very much in vogue, the coat of arms and its motto was resurrected and featured prominently in advertising.

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BA100: 42. The Airbus A320 Family Aircraft

100 Years Of British Airways: How the Airbus A320 became the workhorse of BA’s short-haul operations.

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British Airways Airbus A320 Aircraft, Landor Livery
British Airways Airbus A320 Aircraft, Landor Livery (Image Credit: British Airways)

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

The Airbus A320 is now the workhorse of BA’s short-haul operation. However, its first delivery to BA came by accident.

When BA acquired British Caledonian in 1988, it inherited an order for 10 Airbus A320 aircraft which BCAL had placed at launch of the aircraft in 1983.

The first aircraft were delivered after the merger with BA. The first scheduled Airbus A320 passenger flight was from Gatwick to Geneva in April 1988. The aircraft were promptly dispatched to Heathrow.

In 1998, BA placed its first order for Airbus aircraft with an order for 59 Airbus A320 family aircraft with options on a further 129 aircraft. This was at the time BA’s single largest order for an aircraft.

The first Airbus A319 aircraft were delivered to BA in Birmingham in 2000 but were subsequently transferred to Heathrow as it sought to replace Boeing 757 & 767 aircraft with smaller capacity aircraft.

It has since proven to be extremely effective and efficient aircraft. Though BA is in the process of reducing the number of Airbus A319 aircraft, in favour of the Airbus A320. The latter aircraft have also been subject to “densification” as BA seeks to compete with low cost airlines.

British Airways Airbus A320 Yip Man-Yam "Rendezvous" Project Utopia Livery
British Airways Airbus A320 Yip Man-Yam “Rendezvous” Project Utopia Livery (Image Credit: British Airways)

BA currently has 42 Airbus A319, 67 A320 and 18 A321 aircraft at Heathrow and Gatwick. BA has also since taken delivery of 10 Airbus A320neo and 5 Airbus A321neo aircraft.

It was thought until recently that BA and many of its fellow IAG airlines would operate exclusively the Airbus A320 family on short-haul routes. IAG took the aviation industry by surprise earlier this year by announcing a letter of intent to acquire Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. However, IAG has yet to convert this to a firm order.

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BA100: 43. World Traveller

100 Years Of British Airways: BA’s long-haul economy cabin World Traveller.

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BA World Traveller Cabin, Boeing 777-300 aircraft (Image Credit: British Airways)

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

If truth be told, long-haul economy is not an area where BA can claim to have led the airline industry in innovation.

Virgin Atlantic can with some justification claim to have led the industry with seat back TVs as well as extra touches such as complimentary ice creams. Virgin claims to be the first airline to offer seat back TV to all passengers from June 1991.

The “World Traveller” brand was introduced in 1991, replacing what was previously known as economy. The idea behind the rebranding was to present the cabin as a product in its own right, rather than simply the back of the aircraft.

The cabin last went through a complete “end to end” revamp in late 1998 with the aim of “Making time fly” for passengers. After extensive passenger research, BA rethought the entire passenger experience, introducing allocated seating, new seats and cabin interiors, amenities and seat back in-flight entertainment.

The “innovative” double-decker meal tray structure did not last long.

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BA100: 44. The Gate Gourmet Dispute

100 Years Of British Airways: How an industrial dispute between Gate Gourmet and its trade union flared up in spectacular fashion for BA.

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Gate Gourmet & British Airways at London Heathrow
Gate Gourmet & British Airways at London Heathrow

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

Former CEO of British Airways Sir Rod Eddington was once quoted as saying that when he woke up in the morning his first thought was whether BA aircraft are still in the air or not.

On one morning during Rod Eddington’s tenure, they were not.

The reason why dates back to 1997 when, as part of a business efficiency programme, BA decided to outsource its in-house catering function to Gate Gourmet. The company was subsequently sold to the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group.

8 years later, in the peak of the 2005 summer travel season, it would come back to haunt BA in quite spectacular fashion.

The exact facts behind this episode are subject to claim and counter-claim by all parties involved.

The issue first emerged in August 2005 when BA announced there would be no catering any BA flights to or from London Heathrow due to industrial action at Gate Gourmet.

What had happened is that Gate Gourmet had been in negotiations in what was then the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) on changes to its working practices, such as how many employees are required to load a dishwasher. Gate Gourmet claimed that a failure to reform its working practices threatened the long-term viability of the business.

Members of the TGWU rejected the offer. Around 667 of 2,000 Gate Gourmet employees at Heathrow took part in unofficial industrial action in protest and were sacked by Gate Gourmet.

If that wasn’t enough, the episode escalated further for as the next day BA ground staff at London Heathrow took part in a wild cat strike in sympathy with Gate Gourmet staff.

This grounded the airline’s entire London Heathrow operation for over 24 hours. It took days for the operation to return to normal, with passengers queuing outside Heathrow terminals in tents, all in front of the world’s media. 900 flights were cancelled and the estimated cost of the strike to BA was £40m.

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BA100: 45. Dawson’s Field Hijacking

100 Years Of British Airways: The hijacking of a BOAC Super VC-10 aircraft at Dawsons Field in September 1970.

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Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

An inevitable consequence of operating a global airline is that it will be caught up in major geopolitical events.

On 6 September 1970 members of Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine made an unsuccessful attempt to hijack an El Al Boeing 707 flying from Amsterdam.

The hijackers were overpowered and the aircraft landed at Heathrow. One of the two hijackers was shot. Another hijacker, Leila Khaled, was held in custody in the UK. Members of the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine sought to negotiate her release.

On 9 September 1970, a BOAC Super VC-10 aircraft operating as flight BA775 and piloted by Captain Cyril Goulborn, having started its journey in Mumbai, departed Bahrain for Beirut.

The aircraft was hijacked by members of the Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine. The aircraft landed in Beirut before being made to fly to Zerqa (also known as Dawsons Field) which was a military airfield 20 miles north of Amman.

Also at the airfield was a hijacked TWA Boeing 707 and a Swissair DC-8 aircraft.

The 105 passengers and 10 crew on board the aircraft were held hostage for several days until British, German, Swiss, and Israeli authorities agreed to release Leila Khaled.

All passengers and crew were released from the aircraft before all three aircraft were blown up on 12 September 1970. All passengers and crew from the BOAC flight subsequently returned to the UK.

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BA100: 46. “London Airways”

100 Year Of British Airways: BA’s “difficult” relationship with UK regional passengers.

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British Airways Birmingham Liveried Aircraft
British Airways Birmingham Liveried Aircraft (Image Credit: British Airways)

Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

In its near 100 year history, the operations of BA and its predecessor airlines have been primarily based in London.

However, all of BA’s predecessor airlines have a history with the UK regions. Imperial Airways began operating a route from London to Birmingham and Manchester in the early 1930s.

The relationship between BA and UK regions over the past few decades could be described as “somewhat difficult”.

“Manchester Terminal 1 British Airways”

30 years ago, BA had a substantial presence in the UK regions.

It had a sizeable long-haul route network in Manchester serving Barbados, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Mumbai, New York, Orlando, as well as around 10 UK domestic airports and 18 airports in mainland Europe.

Manchester airport also opened a new £75m terminal called “Terminal 1 British Airways” to house all BA services under one roof and offering a minimum connection time of 30 minutes for transfer passengers.

BA also had a sizeable presence in Birmingham dubbed a “Eurohub” from 1991, with the airport also being the first to receive new deliveries of Airbus A319 aircraft in 1999.

BA also used to operate transatlantic routes to New York from Birmingham and Glasgow until 1999. Other airports such as Bristol and Southampton also had a BA presence.

The short-haul operation across the UK was a mix of acquired airlines and franchise partners with a varied fleet that was in near permanent state of restructuring.

Over time BA gradually reduced its presence following the rise of low cost airlines. Cabin crew bases in Glasgow and Manchester were closed. Ground staff at UK regional airports were outsourced. Links from Gatwick to Aberdeen, Manchester and Newcastle were cut as part of a “de-hubbing” of Gatwick.

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BA100: 47. The Things You Can’t Do Anymore

100 Years Of British Airways: Services and facilities withdrawn by BA over the past few decades.

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Welcome to our 100 part series on the history of BA and its predecessor airlines.

Even over the past two decades, air travel has changed beyond recognition.

Whether it is due to advances in technology, security requirements, changing social attitudes or simply cold hard economics, there have been any facilities and services withdrawn over the past few decades.

1. Peruse a printed timetable

Sadly, these were withdrawn many years ago. Of course, you now have searchable timetables online, but sometimes it is easier to just browse the printed page. Printed timetables do of course also serve as a permanent historical record. Here’s one of, if not the last, printed timetables from 2007/2008.

2. Rock-up at the gate without a ticket 10 minutes before your flight

It’s unthinkable today, but in the era of BA’s Shuttle Service on UK domestic routes you could just turn up at the gate 10 minutes before departure without even a ticket and be guaranteed a seat on the aircraft

3. Check-in downtown

It wasn’t until that long ago you could check-in for your flight (and in some cases luggage) at Paddington and Victoria stations.

BA also used to offer Club Europe passengers the ability to check-in at parking and car hire facilities. At some airports you could also check-in in the lounge or at the departure gate.

4. Check-in by telephone

No, not on your phone. But as in literally calling up BA.

5. Make a run for your flight

Running late for your flight? Caught up in traffic or just missed a Heathrow Express train? Hoping to make a run for the departure gate and catch the flight just as the aircraft doors are closing?

Today, not a chance, at least at Heathrow Terminal 5. The opening of Terminal 5 introduced the concept of “conformance” whereby you have to clear security 35 minutes before your flight departs or you will be automatically offloaded from the flight.

Although many passengers viewed this as an aberration and BA admitted at the time it would require giving passengers difficult messages, it has been maintained.

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