British Airways

The United Kingdom’s national airline since 1939.


The origins of British Airways lie in the post-World War I era of civil aviation. On August 25, 1919, its forerunner company, Aircraft Transport and Travel (AT&T), began the world’s first daily international scheduled air service flying between London and Paris. That initial flight, in a single-engine De Havilland DH-4A biplane carrying one passenger and a cargo of newspapers, Devonshire cream, and grouse, taking off from Hounslow Heath, made history. The first flight took two and one-half hours and was the inspiration for further growth of British companies, starting services to Paris and to Brussels. Instone, a shipping group, and Handley Page, an aircraft manufacturer, became pioneer air companies despite facing difficulties of few passengers, high fares, and the danger and unreliability of early air travel. For instance, it took one pilot two days to complete the two-hour flight to Paris, making thirty-three forced landings along the way. Pioneer British airlines faced undercutting from their Dutch and French competitors and suffered severe losses.

By 1924, Britain had four main airlines: Instone, Handley Page, Daimler Airways (a successor to AT&T, who succumbed to Dutch and French competition), and British Air Marine Navigation Company, all of which merged to form Imperial Airways. The following year, Imperial Airways was servicing Paris, Brussels, Basel, Cologne, and Zurich. Further service was introduced to Egypt, the Arabian Gulf, India, South Africa, Singapore, and West Africa. Cooperating with Qantas Empire Airways, which serviced Singapore and Australia, service between the United Kingdom and Australia was established by 1935. Smaller air transport companies also began business. In 1935, these smaller companies merged to form the original privately owned British Airways. By 1939, Imperial Airways and British Airways were nationalized to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

Postwar development of British Airways has been a substantial leap from its humble initial origins. Long-haul services were provided to many international routes. Continental European domestic flights were flown by a new airline, British European Airways (BEA). BOAC introduced services to New York in 1946, Japan in 1948, Chicago in 1954, and the West Coast of the United States in 1957. Domestic flights included service to Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Manchester. By 1967, the government recommended that a holding board be responsible for two main airlines, BOAC and BEA. British Caledonian was born in 1970, when Caledonian Airways took over British United Airways. Two years later, BOAC and BEA combined under a British Airways board, and a separate airline emerged as British Airways in 1974. Defeating the odds against it, including severe financial challenges, in January, 1976, British Airways launched the world’s first supersonic passenger service, simultaneously with Air France: the Concorde. In 1987, the British government began selling shares in British Airways and the company was completely privatized.

As of 2001, British Airways’ fleet comprises seven Concordes, seventy-one Boeing 747’s, thirty-eight Boeing 777’s, twenty-one Boeing 767’s, forty-eight Boeing 757’s, and fifty-two Boeing 737’s, as well as eighty-three Airbus A318’s, A319’s, and A320’s in service or on order. British Airways is a member of the oneworld Alliance, along with American Airlines, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, Finnair, Aer Lingus, and LanChile, and also has code-sharing agreements with Air Mauritius, America West, Crossair, Emirates, LOT Polish Airlines, and Malev.

Operational Structure

British Airways operates from two main bases, London’s two primary airports, Heathrow (the world’s largest international airport) and Gatwick. In the year 2000, forty-eight million people flew on 529,807 British Airways flights, or an average of eighty passengers checking in every minute around the clock, and a British Airways flight either taking off or landing safely every thirty seconds. British Airways maintains an enormous fleet capable of circling the globe, with flight crews trained to serve and protect business, royal, and vacationing tourists around the clock all year long. Maintaining a huge fleet of aircraft and maintenance support systems, the flagship of the British Airways fleet remains the Concorde; British Airways boasts more supersonic flying in one year than all of the world’s air forces combined.

British Airways attributes its success to its behind-the-scenes activities, such as investor relations. On its World Wide Web site, the company provides comprehensive information regarding its financial performance, a presentation provided to the financial community, an online version of its own investor magazine, and even more information, including its history, in the British Airways Factbook. British Airways has also created partnerships and alliances with other airlines around the world to better serve its customers.

British Airways is involved in cargo service and tracking to support globalization, big business uniting the world. British Airways engineering services offer a wide range of technical and support services, individually tailored toward operational and financial efficiency of the business customer. British Airways also offers flight training in what are considered to be world-class facilities.

British Airways participates in Dreamflight, a British charity whose sole purpose is to transport seriously ill children on a holiday of a lifetime to Walt Disney World in Florida. British Airways provides information on the program through a Dreamflight Web site.

Ever mindful of its responsibility to protect the environment, British Airways maintains a program of corporate responsibility to maintain and improve the environment. In conjunction with this program, there is a community learning center in Waterside, Harmondsworth, promoting opportunities for young people and adults to develop knowledge and skills to enable them to grow in active, positive community participation. Furthermore, British Airways provides awards that encourage environmental awareness in the hospitality industry.

British Airways is today the world’s biggest international airline, carrying more passengers from one country to another than any of its competitors. Because it is the world’s longest-established airline, it bears the distinction as the industry leader.


  • Gregory, Martyn. Dirty Tricks: British Airways’ Secret War Against Virgin Atlantic. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. An exposé of British Airways’ and American Airlines’ attempts to prevent upstart Virgin Airways from competing with them.
  • Jackson, A. J. Imperial Airways and the First British Airlines, 1919-1940. Lavenham, Suffolk, England: T. Dalton, 1995. A history of the early British airlines that eventually merged to become British Airways.
  • Marriott, Leo. ABC British Airways Book. 2d ed. Plymouth, Mich.: Plymouth, 1998. A corporate history.
  • Reed, Arthur. Airline: The Inside Story of British Airways. London: BBC Books, 1990. A behind-the-scenes look at the airline.

Air carriers


Supersonic aircraft