MIAMI — British Airways celebrates forty years of flying passengers and cargo around the world today, April 1st. A lot has happened in the last 40 years, ranging from Supersonic Air Travel to forming the International Airlines Group. While the airline might be only four decades old, the story goes back even further, to 1940.
On April 1, 1940 Imperial Airways and BAL merged to become British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). When World War II ended in 1945, BOAC was flying virtually unopposed on routes around Europe. That changed in 1946, when British European Airways (BEA) was formed as a second corporation for inter-European routes. Initially, BEA and BOAC competed on flights from the UK to Rome, Frankfurt, Cypress, and Tel Aviv. On January 1, 1946, a BSA Lancastrian made the first landing at London Heathrow airport.
However, the Civil Aviation Act of 1946 required European and South American services to be passed to further BEA and British South American Airways (BSAA). Although BOAC went on to absorb BSAA in 1949, BEA continued to operate the UK’s domestic and European routes for the next quarter century. The flights were operated by a variety of aircraft, but it is worth mentioning that BOAC purchased the Connie and Strats (the first non UK aircraft purchased by BOAC) because they couldn’t compete with US airlines with a converted bomber. Meanwhile, BEA introduced and operated the DC-3 and JU-2s in Scotland.
Meanwhile, BOAC became the first airline to operate six days a week during the winter and summer on the North Atlantic airline routes. Additionally, BOAC ferried military aircraft along with passengers and cargo in the war, utilizing female pilots who operating B-24 Liberators. In 1952, BOAC flew home the king home on an Argonaut when King George VI died. It later introduced the first jet service, via the Comet, in 1952. It began the first transatlantic service four years later, in October 1958 beating Pan Am by 3 weeks..
In early 1972, a board was established by the UK government to jointly manage British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British European Airways (BEA). On September 1, 1972, the UK government combined BOAC and BEA into British Airways Group after the Civil Aviation Act in 1971 was passed. However, the airlines were still operated separately.
On March 31, 1974, BOAC and BEA were merged to formally establish British Airways. The combined entity began operations together on April 1. Sir Colin Marshall and Lord John King were bought in to revitalize the airline with the launch of a “putting people first” campaign for managers and flight crew. 1974-77 was difficult period of time due to all regional divisions in the integration, but also a time when the carrier began operating its flagship Concorde service in 1976. The supersonic jet served multiple cities including Bahrain, Miami, Singapore, and Washington DC before settling on New York JFK in 1977. The carrier later launched the Boeing 757 with Eastern in January of 1983.
In 1984, BA unveiled a new corporate identity designed by Landor, and in 1988, BA merged with Gatwick-based British Caledonian Airways. About a decade later, the airline unveiled a new aircraft livery to highlight their corporate identity (the current livery), and just before the millennium, BA helped form the oneworld alliance with Qantas and American. It pioneered flat bed service well ahead of the curve in 1996 in first class, later expanding it to business several years later. In 1998, the airline formed its own LCC, Go! to compete with RyanAir and EasyJet but eventually sold it to the latter. A few years later in 2003, BA retired the Concorde becoming the world’s last operator of the SST.
In the next decade, BA continued to innovate. It opened Heathrow’s world class Terminal 5 in June 2008, though things were rocky in the beginning. AA and BA finally received long-awaited government approval to form their joint-venture where they control over 60% of the market between the US and UK. Shortly thereafter British Airways and Iberia merged to form the International Airlines Group in 2011. In 2012, bought out Lufthansa’s stake in competitor BMI in 2012. Last year, the airline introduced the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner becoming the first airline to have both in service.
British Airways Heritage Center
Located in Waterside, the British Airways Heritage Center is home to the British Airways Heritage Collection. It has existed since the formation of British Airways to preserve the records and artifacts of British Airways’ predecessor companies BOAC, BEA, BSAA and the pre-war Imperial Airways Limited as well as British Airways Ltd.
Over 3,500 employees work at the British Airways Headquarters, which was once located near Heathrow. Each wing is named after a continent. Inside the vast complex is a supermarket, bank, and gym inside under a massive atrium that has the feel of a park. Topping it all of is a towering 747 landing gear assembly in the lobby.
Inside, the Speedbird Heritage Centre collection comprises an extensive document archive recording the formation, development and operations of these companies and British Airways as well as memorabilia and artifacts.
The collection also includes over 400 uniforms from the 1930s to the present day are preserved, as well as a large collection of aircraft models. Additionally, there is a large library of thousands of photographs is also available as well as probably the most complete set of aviation posters in the UK.
Paul Jarvis started as a secretary at BA becoming a lead financial and legal executive within the company. He was able to persuade CEO Willie Walsh to move to replace the old library with a new one to showcase the past, present, and future of British Airways. Jarvis retired 11 years ago and works nearly full time, and he says, “I would be a museum curator in another life. I am very proud they allow me to do this. I am putting something back into BA who was very good to me. My legacy was a hodge podge collection.”
Additionally, Jarvis says “Everything is being properly conserved, protected, and databased. I am passionate about people being able to learn and appreciate the BA legacy…Our number 1 priority is to support BA business. Because we have been successful, we are now at the head office.” Jarvis oversees a team largely composed of volunteers.
The collection is supported by the airline as well as donations from employees. Almost all, if not all, of the BA employees are familiar with this collection. More that 100 employees come to the heritage center every day for assistance with their job. Additionally, all flight and cabin crews come to the center as part of their induction into the company.
Some of the collection is housed in the Speedbird Centre Heritage Museum. The museum, once a telephone exchange building at Heathrow, was opened in October 2011, and it is funded by British Airways. However, the museum is only open by appointment.
Airways Managing Editor & Senior Partner, Chris Sloan, highly recommends that you check it out because it is a “truly amazing museum which looks back to the past as a prologue to the future.”