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British Airways turns 50 and keeps quiet about it – so what do experts think about the airline?

British Airways turns 50 and keeps quiet about it – so what do experts think about the airline?

Happy 50th birthday, British Airways. BA started flying on 1 April 1974. The carrier was created from British European Airways and intercontinental airline BOAC, plus two smaller operators: Cambrian Airways and Northeast Air.

Initially, BA was wholly state-owned by the UK government. It was privatised in 1987 and today is part of a Spanish company, IAG, which in turn is partially state-owned by the Qatari government.

British Airways is saying nothing about its half-centenary: five years ago, BA marked 100 years since one of its ancestor airlines, Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd, began operating in 1919.

Fifty years ago, flying was way beyond the means of most people. On 1 April 1974, the UK’s brand-new airline would fly you from London to Tangier for £62.50 – the equivalent of £567 today. Fifty years on, the Moroccan city is one of dozens of destinations that have fallen off the British Airways route network but reappeared on others: this month Ryanair will get you to North Africa £25, as long as you buy online.

In the days before the internet, passengers were encouraged to book at British Airways travel shop on many high streets – including Nottingham, Watford and Bristol.

BA remains formidably profitable. It still has the majority of the slots at London Heathrow airport. And even though two out of five BA flights last year were more than 15 minutes late, demand for using the airport appears insatiable.

British Airways is recognised around the world (Nick Morrish/British Airways)
British Airways is recognised around the world (Nick Morrish/British Airways)

In 2024, the chairman and chief executive of British Airways, Sean Doyle, launched a £7bn modernisation plan, saying: “We’re going to take delivery of new aircraft, introduce new cabins, elevate our customer care, focus on operational performance and address our environmental impact by reducing our emissions and creating a culture of sustainability.”

The airline boss says he is “laser-focused on transforming our business and fixing any pain points for our customers”. From Wednesday 3 April, members of BA’s Executive Club will start to be able to send messages free of charge on a single device using the airline’s WiFi. New aircraft cabins and seats are promised on the latest Airbus A320 series short-haul planes.

Much else is changing. But in the absence of any comment from BA, The Independent has invited some illustrious figures in the travel industry to look back and assess the carrier five decades on from its creation.

Jonathan Hinkles, airline industry executive

This milestone is worth marking – especially so when measured by yardsticks of Pan Am, Sabena, East African, Swissair, Eastern Air Lines and other dear departed airlines. The impact of competition via the Gulf has been huge on service to Asia, Australasia and Africa. In 1974, you could fly to Rangoon and Brunei, Auckland and Darwin, Dar es Salaam and Entebbe.

New York cost £270 return in economy in peak summer 1974 – equivalent to £3,500 in today’s money. Even in 1974, airlines were in the ancillary revenue game. You could select your seat on a BA Trident departing from London to Belfast, Edinburgh or Glasgow for a £2 fee (£26 in today’s money). Today’s charges are good value by that measure.

Not so for others: the 1974 BA timetable helpfully lists car parking options: at Heathrow, it was 65p to park for a day (equivalent to £8.49 today), and for short-term car parking, you’d be set back by 5p for 30 minutes (65p in today’s money).

Spare a thought for 1974s travellers, though. Gourmet inflight dining of the 1970s might be a thing of the past, but thankfully, so is the inflight entertainment. It was available only on some Boeings, and the timetable lists April’s sole movie as the snappily-titled 1972 French spy comedy “The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe”.

The original British Airways timetables, which began on 1 April 1974 (Jonathan Hinkles)
The original British Airways timetables, which began on 1 April 1974 (Jonathan Hinkles)

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive, Advantage Travel Partnership

Many of the airlines now basing themselves in the UK will have done so due to the success that BA has driven in this market, and the insatiable desire of the British public to travel.

BA has to compete with new entrants: low-cost carriers on short-haul including easyJet, carriers such as Etihad, Emirates and Qatar on long-haul. Many airlines have invested significantly in delivering superior inflight experience, which has seen some faithful BA customers defecting to other carriers.

Yet there remains a huge amount of nostalgia amongst the older British generation who would like BA to succeed but have been clearly underwhelmed in recent years by some of the changes made. However, with Sean Doyle at the helm there is every chance that BA will be return to its heyday and continue to be very successful in the future.

Like any airline, BA will be impacted by global economic and geo-political issues, heightened competition and changing consumer behaviours. But with its strong foundation, an ambitious management, and with the right investment in areas like technology and product innovation, BA should be able to complete well in the long term. British Airways continues to be an airline of choice for many travellers, and particularly those travelling for business.

Premium cabin on British Airways Boeing 747 (British Airways)
Premium cabin on British Airways Boeing 747 (British Airways)

Rob Burgess, founder, Head for Points

British Airways enters its 50th year as, arguably, the best and most profitable of the legacy European carriers. But the question is whether that is enough given the huge strides taken by the Asian and (in particular) Middle Eastern carriers over the last 20 years. In premium cabins, the Club Suite roll-out means that, in general, BA now has the best widely used business class seat of any European carrier.

The First Wing for Gold card holders at Heathrow Terminal 5 has also been a game changer for top flyers. Arguably, however, the BA story is about a willingness to spend on capital expenditure but an unwillingness to spend on day to day costs. Underwhelming food, alcohol spending cut to the bone (even in First Class), tatty lounges and constantly failing IT point to a culture which seeks savings in operating costs at every turn. Oddly, capex – depreciated and not impacting operating profit – is not an issue as new aircraft orders show.

The risk going forward is that self-funded leisure travellers are buying a higher percentage of business and premium economy seats than ever before as business travel refuses to bounce back. This is a nasty double whammy: these people pay less for their seats but also expect far more for their money (because it is their own cash) and won't be satisfied with £10 bottles of wine.

British Airways Boeing 747s at London Heathrow (NewsCast)
British Airways Boeing 747s at London Heathrow (NewsCast)

The short-haul operation remains a success. With low cost competition on virtually every BA route, it is happy to Hoover up the less price-sensitive as well as transfer traffic. Whilst not comparable to an Asian or even American short-haul experience, it is well ahead of the Lufthansa and Air France/KLM group carriers. Club Europe business class, giving you fast-track check in, security, boarding, lounge access, empty middle seat and a decent meal, is a good package, especially with seats often under £300 return over a weekend.

Does Heathrow dominance and the transatlantic joint venture with American Airlines lead to complacency? Perhaps. But the loyalty programme is also a key driver of stickiness which allows service standards to drop. When Head for Points ran a competition allowing the winner to fly business class to New York on the airline of their choice, the majority of entrants wanted Virgin Atlantic. At the same time, most admitted that they actually fly British Airways due to corporate contracts or loyalty benefits.

The bottom line, perhaps, is that – as a business – British Airways is highly successful and highly profitable, especially compared with its European competitors. What it doesn't offer (and of course isn't obliged to) is much of a sense of national pride in offering a world class service which would act as a flagship for the UK.

Economy cabin inside the Boeing 747 (British Airways)
Economy cabin inside the Boeing 747 (British Airways)

Tim Jeans, aviation industry executive

British Airways is almost unique in only operating from their home city. They completely ignore the regions. Look at the numbers flying from Manchester: the airport is now handling 30 million passengers a year. But instead of running a hub operation at Manchester, British Airways just has a shuttle service six times a day to Heathrow.

Agreed, Heathrow is a gold mine, but there’s probably a bit of a “bunker mentality”. British Airways should do what the BBC did and shift a certain proportion of staff to the North. That way they would get a fresh perspective on potential markets.

Sean Moulton, airline schedule analyst

British Airways' focus on London leaves them in some of the most constrained airports in the world: Heathrow is the world's busiest dual-runway airport, Gatwick is the second-busiest single runway airport and City doesn't operate for a 24-hour period at weekends.

Other than increasing the number of seats, British Airways can only grow more profitably by focusing on the business market – something it excels in when heading to the US, offering connections to over 25 cities in America.

If I was to suggest where next for BA: should it be able to obtain slots, Eindhoven (Netherlands), given the other European legacy carriers are too close to serve the city by plane.