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Fifty years of British Airways: the definitive timeline

Simon Calder’s Travel

British Airways started flying 50 years ago this month. The state-owned airline was formed from an amalgamation of BEA, BOAC, Cambrian and Northeast. Its main base, then as now, was London Heathrow. BA is declining to comment on its half-centenary, so we have compiled a timeline on the airline’s behalf.

The aviation industry in 1974 was basically a cosy cartel, with high-cost airlines charging astronomical fares. Over the decades, much has changed in aviation, with fares plummeting, options blossoming and safety increasing to an extraordinary level.

The British Airways route network was very different, as airline industry executive Jonathan Hinkles discovered from the first-ever BA timetable.

“In 1974 the ‘world’s favourite airline’ actually did fly around the world, although it probably wasn’t a hugely economic exercise to do so, even then,” he says. “Three times a week, the BA591 westabout VC10 set off from Heathrow via New York JFK, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Nadi and Sydney to Melbourne. Another VC10 set off eastabout to Melbourne – typically via Frankfurt, Doha, Calcutta and Singapore. Some excursion: the VC10 which left London at 1pm on Tuesday would arrive back at Heathrow from this epic trip at 9.50pm on Friday evening.”

Much else has changed over five decades. These are the key events.

1975 (12 January): BA launches a new “Shuttle” from Heathrow to Glasgow. Passengers can just turn up, board the plane up to 10 minutes before departure, and buy a ticket on board. If no seats are available, a standby aircraft will be deployed – sometimes for a single passenger.

The Shuttle is later expanded to Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast.

1976 (21 January): Concorde enters service with British Airways, flying from Heathrow to Bahrain. Passengers are provided with complementary cigars. The main target, New York JFK, is off-limits because of concerns about noise.

1976 (24 May): Concorde flies to Washington DC.

1977 (July): Piccadilly Line on the London Underground extended to Heathrow; the Queen conducts the official opening in December that year.

1977 (22 November): Concorde starts flying to New York JFK, which would become its principal route for the next 26 years.

1978: Online booking and no-frills flying is predicted with astonishing accuracy by Ross Stainton, then-chief executive of British Airways. He writes: “I can…

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