Friday, 22 February 2019

The briefest of brief histories of British Airways

On August 25, 1919, British Airways’ forerunner company, Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited (AT&T), launched the world's first daily international scheduled air service between London and Paris.  This was with a single-engined De Havilland DH4A registration G-EAJC, the aircraft was flown by pilot, Lt E H “Bill” Lawford. It carried one passenger and a consignment of leather, several brace of grouse and some jars of Devonshire cream.

In February 1920 Instone Airline Limited started a Hounslow to Paris services. The following month saw the closure of Hounslow and flights were switched to new Croydon Airport, which promised to be the new premier London Airport. New routes opened to Brussels and Amsterdam but the companies struggled without government support while across the Channel continental competitors received generous help.

On 17th May 1920 Air Transport and Travel together with KLM, inaugurated Croydon to Amsterdam service.

April 1922 The Daimler Airway began operations from Croydon to Paris using ‘cabin boys’ on their aircraft.

In 1924, Britain's four main fledgeling airlines, which had by then evolved into Instone, Handley Page, Daimler Airways (a successor to AT&T), and British Air Marine Navigation Company Limited, merged to form Imperial Airways Limited.

Based at Croydon Airport, Imperial Airways would receive a government subsidy of £1m spread over ten years on the basis that they would be required to develop routes to the Empire – to South Africa, India and ultimately Australia – particularly for the carriage of mail. The initial fleet was three Handley Page W.8bs, two Supermarine Sea Eagles, one Vickers Vimy Commercial and seven DH34s. These early aircraft were used to develop the European routes to Paris, Zurich, Basle, Amsterdam, Hanover and Berlin.

Imperial Airways’ first flight was London Croydon to Paris Le Bourget, on 26th April, was by DH34 G-EBCX with Captain H.S. Robertson at the controls. This was followed by London Croydon-Brussels-Cologne daily services on 3rd May, London Croydon-Amsterdam-Hanover-Berlin (in conjunction with Deutsche Aero-Lloyd AG) weekday services on 2 June and London Croydon-Paris-Basle-Zurich thrice-weekly services on 17 June.

4th May 1926 saw the first British Royal family member to fly with Imperial Airways – HRH The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, flew Paris to London in Handley-Page W.10 G-EMBR City of Pretoria.

July 1926 Imperial Airways introduced the three-engined Armstrong Whitworth Argosy on the London Croydon-Paris Le Bourget route.

1st May 1927  The luxury Silver Wing lunch service to Paris was launched by Imperial Airways using the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy. With a comfortable recognisable airliner cabin, a steward, a four-course luncheon and a bar service, the flight took 2 hours 30 minutes and was a notable breakthrough in terms of comfort and service.

February 1928   Imperial Airways' first Short S8 Calcutta flying boat G-EBVG was launched at Rochester.

In June 1928    A race between Imperial Airways’ Argosy G-EBLF carrying 18 passengers and the London and North Eastern Railways’ Flying Scotsman took place on 15h.  Captain Gordon Olley took off from Croydon and flew to Edinburgh Turnhouse.  The aircraft made two refuelling stops enroute and completed the journey approximately 15 minutes faster than by train!

In June 1931 The Handley Page HP42 four-engined bi-plane, a notable aircraft, was introduced by Imperial Airways on the Croydon to Paris route. With two passenger cabins this safe, slow but stately aeroplane brought new standards of safety and comfort to air travel.

April 1935 Imperial Airways and Qantas Empire Airways opened the 12,754 mile London to Brisbane route for passengers for a single fare £195. There were no through bookings on the first service because of heavy sector bookings, but there were two through passengers on the subsequent service, which left London on 20 April. The route was opened for passengers from Brisbane to London on 17 April. The frequency of service was weekly and the journey time was 12½ days.

1st January 1936  British Airways Limited was formed from United Airways, Hillman’s Airways and Spartan Airlines. They started operations from Heston, Middlesex, moving on 17 May to Gatwick. The airline operated to Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Malmo and also received a government subsidy to develop routes to North and East Europe. They mainly used American-built Lockheed monoplanes. Just over a year later the airline transferred its operational base from Gatwick to Croydon Airport.

11th November 1938 The British government announced its intention to merge Imperial Airways and British Airways Limited to form a single air operator British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The necessary Bill received Royal Assent on 4 August 1939, just prior to the commencement of World War II. 

Photo Imperial War Museum
16 - 17 January 1942      Winston Churchill MP made the first transatlantic flight by a British prime minister. He flew in a BOAC Boeing 314 flying boat G-AGCA Berwick under Captain J C Kelly Rogers, from Bermuda to Plymouth. Churchill is seen here at the controls of the aircraft.  The captain even recounted details of the flight for Life Magazine at the time. 

November 1st 1945     The new Labour government announced plans for post-war air services which would be provided by three state corporations: BOAC to continue to operate routes to the Empire, Far East and North America, British European Airways (BEA) to operate services to Europe and domestically within the United Kingdom and British South American Airways (BSAA) to operate new services to South American and Caribbean destinations.

Lord Winster in front of Star Light on 1st Jan 46 Photo Pathfinder Craig

31st May 1946   Heathrow officially opened as the new London Airport to replace the old Croydon grass airfield. BSAA operated the first international departure from there on 1 January when Avro Lancastrian G-AGAG 'Star Light', a converted Lancaster bomber, carrying 13 staff passengers, flown by Don Bennett and R. Clifford Alabaster left on a proving flight to Buenos Aires. For more details about BSAA, please visit 

1st August 1946   British European Airways Corporation (BEA) took over the European services operated by BOAC operating short-haul routes from Northolt. BEA operated the unpressurised Douglas DC-3 and the Vickers Viking, developing a large flying programme that for several years made Northolt one of the busiest airports in the world.

May 2nd 1952  BOAC flew the world’s first pure jet service. The Comet G-ALYP operated from London Airport to Johannesburg via Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone.  The aircraft was given a warm and enthusiastic send-off by BOAC staff, press and dignitaries at London Heathrow. 
April 1952 BEA began the world’s first sustained airscrew-turbined airliner passenger service with Vickers Viscount V.701 G-AMNY, flying London-Rome-Athens-Nicosia.

4th October 1958  BOAC operated the first jet service across the North Atlantic to New York using the Comet 4. G-APDB operated the eastbound flight and G-APDC operated the westbound. The two aircraft passed about 300 miles apart at 47degW at 1335Z. Sir Gerard d’Erlanger, BOAC’s Chairman, aboard the westbound aircraft and Basil Smallpiece, Managing Director, in the eastbound aircraft exchanged messages during the flights.

May 1960       BOAC commenced flights using Boeing 707 aircraft. The first revenue-earning service was to from London to New York on G-APFD.

January 1962   The first flight of the De Havilland Trident, BEA’s new three-engined jet aircraft took place.

April 1964  BOAC commenced Standard VC-10 operations when G-ARVJ flew from Heathrow to Lagos.

10th June 1965 BEA's Trident 1 G-ARPR flight number BE343 arrival at Heathrow from Paris Le Bourget made the world’s first fully-automatic landing of a commercial airliner carrying fare paying passengers.

Additional airlines began to pass into BEA’s ownership and in 1967, the Government recommended a holding board be responsible for BOAC and BEA, with the establishment of a second force airline, resulting in British Caledonian being born in 1970.

April 1969      The first BEA Super BAC1-11 flight from London to Berlin took place.

April 1971     BOAC operated its first commercial Boeing 747 flight, flying from London to New York (JFK) on G-AWNF.

September 1972  The British Airways Group was established, which would eventually result in BOAC and BEA being dissolved on 31 March 1974 upon the formation of British Airways.

21st January 1976   The world’s first passenger supersonic services were inaugurated simultaneously by British Airways to Bahrain (Concorde G-BOAA) and Air France to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar.

24th May 1976   Concorde flights to Washington Dulles commenced

22nd November 1976   Concorde services to New York JFK  started and then on 9th December to Singapore. The Singapore operation was an extension of the Bahrain service and was operated in conjunction with Singapore Airlines. Concorde G-BOAD wore Singapore Airlines’ livery on its port side with the BA livery on the starboard side for use on that route.

In July 1979, the Government announced its intention to sell shares in British Airways and then finally in February 1987 British Airways was privatised.

The recession during the very early 80's saw many of the older aircraft retired from the fleet, whilst Several Boeing 747-236 aircraft were delivered from Boeing and directly put into storage in the USA and offered for sale.

February 1982  Boeing 757 aircraft were introduced, initially on Shuttle routes followed by European routes during the summer.

1st April  1984   The airline became British Airways plc.

31st December 1985  The last two Tridents were retired.

July 1987  A merger with financially troubled British Caledonian was announced and implemented in December after an agreement to drop some of BCAL’s slots had been reached. BA acquired a fleet of eight DC-10 aircraft, five miscellaneous Boeing 747 aircraft, 13 BAC 1-11-500 aircraft and an order for 10 Airbus A320 aircraft. This was the first time that British Airways had owned DC-10 aircraft and they remained in operation at Gatwick for another 11 years.

April 1988        The Airbus A320 enters British Airways service, initially based at Gatwick before moving to Heathrow.

 In the first part of 1990, The Boeing 767 entered British Airways’ service on its European routes, predominately to Charles de Gaulle, Paris.

February 1991  The Gulf War caused a significant loss of traffic, resulting in job losses and the deferral of several aircraft deliveries. Later in the year many routes were culled, including Concorde flights to Miami and services to Ireland.

November 1992    British Airways acquired for £1 the assets of the holding company for Dan-Air. The charter side of Dan-Air was closed down but its Gatwick scheduled service routes and fleet of Boeing 737-300/400 aircraft were retained with a view to creating a low-cost BA operation at Gatwick, operating a much-enlarged network of European services.

January 1993   British Airways bought a 19.9% stake in US Air, all investment in the airline was later sold in May 1997

March 1993     The company cheque book was out again, this time to buy 25% of Qantas

July 1993       The final BAC 1-11 aircraft were retired at Birmingham.

November 1994  Concorde services to Washington were concluded 18 years of operation.

In March 1995 British Airways sold its charter airline subsidiary Caledonian Airways, including its fleet of five Lockheed Tristar aircraft, to Inspirations plc.

British Airways took delivery of its first Boeing 777 and entered service from Heathrow to Dubai and Muscat, in November 1995.

Photo Aero Icarus
May 1998 saw the low-cost subsidiary Go launch flights from Stansted to Rome Ciampino. Initially, the airline used a fleet of seven leased Boeing 737-300 aircraft. The entire operation was sold in June 2001 for £100m to private equity company 3i.

British Airways announced the disposal of 34 of its 53 Boeing 757 aircraft in September 1999, the aircraft were all to be converted into cargo aircraft for DHL

24th October 2004  British Airways withdrew Concorde, signalling the closure of the world’s only supersonic passenger services. The last scheduled commercial flight was BA2 from JFK operated by G-BOAG. BA’s fleet of seven aircraft were dispersed for preservation at Barbados (AE), Edinburgh (AA), Filton (AF), Manchester (AC), New York (AD) and Seattle (AG) with one (AB) remaining at Heathrow.

Information and images are taken from British Airways unless otherwise stated.