British Airways History

British Airways can trace its origins back to the birth of civil aviation, the pioneering days following World War I. On 25 August 1919, its forerunner company, Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited (AT&T), launched the world's first daily international scheduled air service between London and Paris. That initial proving flight, operated by a single-engined de Havilland DH4A biplane taking off from Hounslow Heath, near its successor company's current Heathrow base, carried a single passenger and cargo that included newspapers, Devonshire cream and grouse. It took two and a half hours to reach Le Bourget. Shortly afterwards, two more British companies started services to Paris, and to Brussels - Instone, the shipping group, and Handley Page, the aircraft manufacturer. These pioneer companies struggled against severe difficulties. Passengers were few, fares high, and air travel seldom less than an adventure. One pilot took two days for the two-hour flight to Paris, making 33 forced landings along the way. One by one, the fledgling companies ceased operations, undercut by heavily subsidised French and Dutch competitors.

In 1924, Britain's four main fledgling airlines, which had by then evolved into Instone, Handley Page, The Daimler Airway and British Marine Air Navigation Company, merged to form Imperial Airways Limited. By 1925, Imperial Airways was providing services to Paris, Brussels, Basle, Cologne and Zurich. Operating from the new London airport at Croydon, services were introduced during the 1920s and 1930s to Egypt, the Arabian Gulf, India, South Africa, Singapore and West Africa. In co-operation with Qantas Empire Airways Limited, which operated between Singapore and Australia, a service between the UK and Australia was established in 1935. Meanwhile, a number of smaller UK air transport companies had started flights. In 1935, they merged to form the original privately-owned British Airways Limited, which became Imperial Airways' principal UK competitor on European routes, operating out of another new airport, Gatwick. Following a Government review, Imperial Airways and British Airways were nationalised in 1939 to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

Post-war, BOAC continued to operate longhaul services, other than routes to South America. These were flown by British South American Airways (BSAA), which was merged back into BOAC in 1949. Continental European and domestic flights were flown by a new airline, British European Airways (BEA). BOAC introduced services to New York in 1946, Japan in1948, Chicago in 1954 and the west coast of the United States in 1957. BEA developed a domestic network to various points in the United Kingdom, including Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester. From 1946 until 1960, BOAC and BEA were the principal British operators of scheduled international passenger and cargo services - and they preserved Britain's pioneering role in the industry. The 1950s saw the world enter the passenger jet era - led by BOAC, with the Comet 1 flying to Johannesburg in 1952, halving the previous flight time. Despite grounding the Comet fleet after two crashes in 1954, BOAC was still able to claim the distinction of operating the first jet transatlantic service in October 1958, with two Comet 4s flying simultaneously from London and New York, days ahead of their American rivals. The next decade saw another world beater, when BEA's Trident aircraft made the first automatic landing on a scheduled service, heralding the era of all-weather operations. The birth of the mass package holiday business meant changes in the airline industry. BEA met this by establishing its own charter airline, BEA Airtours, which took off in 1970. This mantle was carried for the Group by Caledonian Airways until March 1995, when the company was sold.

Following the formation of the Air Transport Licensing Board in 1960, other British airlines began to operate competing scheduled services. Indeed, several of the smaller domestic airlines - including Cambrian Airways and BKS (later Northeast Airlines) - eventually passed into BEA's ownership. In 1967, the Government set up another study into the industry. It recommended a holding board to be responsible for the two main airlines, BOAC and BEA, with the establishment of a second force airline, brought about by unifying various independents. As a result, British Caledonian was born in 1970, when the original Caledonian Airways took over British United Airways. Two years later, the businesses of BOAC and BEA were combined under the newly formed British Airways Board, with the separate airlines coming together as British Airways in 1974. Although this merger was to lead initially to substantial financial losses and industrial strife, the new airline inherited its predecessors' pioneering path, launching the world's first supersonic passenger service, simultaneously with Air France, with Concorde in January 1976.

In July 1979, the Government announced its intention to sell shares in British Airways. The Civil Aviation Act 1980 was passed to enable this to happen. Lord King was appointed Chairman in 1981 and charged by the Secretary of State for Trade to take all necessary steps to restore the Group to profitability and prepare it for privatisation. With an overall deficit of £544 million declared for 1981-82, including special provisions to pay for an extensive "survival plan", which included staff cuts, suspension of unprofitable routes and disposal of surplus assets, the task of re-establishing the company as the world's leading airline began in April 1983 with the repositioning of the carrier as the World's Favourite Airline. In February 1987 British Airways was privatised. Over one million applications were received for shares in the airline, offered at 125 pence, making the flotation 11 times oversubscribed. Freed from the constraints of Government ownership, British Airways announced a merger with British Caledonian in July. The merger went ahead following approval by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission later that year.

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