100 years of British Airways, from a converted bomber transporting grouse to afternoon tea at 35,000ft

Britain's national carrier celebrates its 100th birthday on 25 August, 20019. Isobel Green picks out a few of the companies most important milestones.

British Airways celebrates its 100th anniversary on 25th August 2019, marking a century of an iconic British brand that has seen air travel evolve from the birth of civil aviation to the global network we have today.

The airline has come a long way from its one-flight-a day origins in a converted First World War bomber. A British Airways aircraft now takes off somewhere around the world every 90 seconds to one of over over 200 destinations across the globe.

The airline, which has 45,000 employees and counting, has over 45 million customers annually, to whom they provide over 25 million cups of tea and 1.25 bottles of champagne each year.

G-BOAG British Airways Concorde 102 landing at London Heathrow airport on the 23rd June 2003

BA’s existence goes beyond such facts and figures, however. It’s woven into the fabric of British life to such an extent that when its staff threaten industrial action, the news gets splashed across the front pages. There’s no hiding place for the airline, no matter what ups and downs it suffers.

We fly back through the century, and take a brief journey through some of BA’s most significant milestones.


25th August 1919

Aircraft Transport & Travel Limited — soon to become British Airways — launches the world’s first daily international scheduled flight, between London and Paris. The plane in question is a converted De Havilland bomber, the sole passenger is a journalist, and the cargo is a list of British staples: Devonshire cream, jam, several brace of grouse and the day’s newspapers.

1924

Imperial Airways Limited is formed following the merger of Aircraft Transport & Travel Limited with three smaller airlines.

Imperial Airways Limited was formed by the British government on 31 March 1924, after a government report recommended that Britain’s interests in commercial air transport would be best served by merging the larger existing aircraft companies. The four companies concerned were Handley Page Transport, the Instone Airline, Daimler Airway and British Marine Air Navigation, all four of which had struggled to operate at a profit. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images.

1925

By the end of its first year, the airline has carried 11,935 passengers and 212,380 letters to various destinations across Europe.

But Imperial Airways doesn’t have it all its own way. A number of smaller UK air transport companies have sprung up, also offering flights across Europe, and merge to form Imperial Airways’ main competitor: the original, privately-owned British Airways Limited.

1939

The British Government announces the nationalisation of Imperial Airways and British Airways to form the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). A new airline, British European Airlines (BEA), is formed to run all domestic and European flights.

Credit: British Airways

1952

BOAC launches its ‘silver-wings’ service between Heathrow and Paris. The flight is deliberately slowed to 80 minutes so that passengers may take full advantage of the elaborate cuisine provided on board.

1974

BEA and BOAC merge to form British Airways as we know it today.

21st January 1976

British Airways launches a commercial Concorde flight for the first time, on the route from Heathrow to Bahrain. It’s the world’s first — and, to date, only — supersonic passenger service. The Queen takes her first flight on Concorde a year later, the first of many times that Her Majesty used the service.

HM The Queen on a British Airways flight

Credit: British Airways

1985

Designer Roland Klein is asked to design new uniforms for BA staff, replacing those created by Baccarat Wetherall eight years earlier. Subsequent designers of the uniforms will include the likes of Julien Macdonald, Paul Costello and Savile Row tailor Ozwald Boateng. Boateng’s 2008 design is the one that is still in service and worn by 32,000 employees.

1986

British Airways moves into its new home: Terminal Four at Heathrow, which it will use until 2009, when Terminal Five opens.

1987

British Airways becomes one of many publicly-owned companies to be sold off by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The newly-listed company then merges with rival airline British Caledonian Airways, taking control of 70% of the UK air travel market.

1995

First class cabins are given an upgrade, as full-length beds are introduced for the first time and cabin crew are given training under Michelin-star chef Michel Roux to deliver an ‘a la carte service in the sky’. A later update, in 2010, adds an afternoon tea service based upon that at the Dorchester hotel in London.

Credit: British Airways

24th October 2003

Concorde embarks upon its final scheduled, commercial flight, from New York JFK to London Heathrow, before it is formally taken out of service by British Airways.

2019

BA celebrates its centenary year with all manner of events. The Queen visiting the company headquarters; the company’s photo archive is opened to the public; and in April planes decorated in all the company’s former liveries fly together to mark the 50,000th customer flight. It’s not all about looking backwards, though: the company is looking forwards too, as it takes delivery of 72 new planes as part of a £6.5 billion investment.