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From biplanes to flight of the future… Celebrating a century of British Airways

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British Airways Boeing 747

On August 24, 1919, a single-engined biplane took off from a field in Middlesex bound for Paris. It carried one passenger and a cargo of leather, grouse and some jars of Devonshire cream.

Today one of the world’s leading airlines, British Airways, can trace its ancestry back to this, the first-ever scheduled international flight.

It was also the start of a century of innovation that has included serving the first airline meals, operating the first scheduled jet service, making the first automated landing, introducing the first fully flat beds on board and many others.

It was also the first route in what today is one of the most extensive international airline networks, serving more than 70 countries.

In the early days of building this network, British Airways’ antecedent, Imperial Airways, often pioneered new air routes. Many of these were in Africa.

In 1931, it partnered with Wilson Airways, which began regular weekly mail and passenger services between Nairobi and Kisumu to connect with Imperial Airways’ UK-Central African services.

The next year the Central African route was extended to Cape Town, with flying boat services leaving Southampton calling en-route at Kisumu and Mombasa, with an optional stop at Lake Naivasha for Nairobi. 

In West Africa, the weekly Imperial Airways flight from London to Khartoum connected with another flight to Kano, heralding the start of services to Nigeria in 1936. Initially, these flights carried mail rather than passengers, but the initiative proved successful because by October the same year the service was extended to Lagos.

Another partnership, this time with Elders Airways in 1937, saw Imperial Airways offer services to Accra for the first time.

Today, British Airways serves 13 destinations in nine countries in Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands. Its franchise partner, British Airways operated by Comair, flies to all South Africa’s major cities as well as five destinations in southern Africa and the Indian Ocean.

The early airline services also made it much quicker and easier for mail and passengers to get to destinations across Africa. By way of comparison, the Union Castle’s Round Africa service stopped at 20 ports and took nine weeks to get to Cape Town. Travelling by air took just 10 days.

In 1952, Imperial Airways’ successor cut the flight time from London to Johannesburg to just 23 hours when a BOAC Comet operated the first commercial passenger jet service.

The same flight today on an Airbus A380, one of British Airways’ most modern aircraft, takes a little over 11 hours.

“There have been tremendous leaps over the past 100 years, from aircraft technology to the onboard experience, which has evolved beyond all recognition,” Kola Olayinka, British Airways Regional Commercial Manager for West Africa said.

“Early aircraft were noisy and uncomfortable, more suited to carrying mail than passengers. In-flight entertainment might have been a newspaper or magazine and the catering a selection of sandwiches,” He added.

As part of its centenary, to find out what flying will look like in 20, 40, 60 and even 100 years from now British Airways commissioned one of the largest global consumer travel studies of its kind; The BA2119: Flight of the Future Report.

Among the findings was that consumers want far more personalisation from their flying experience. This was especially prevalent in emerging markets, including Africa, where 47 per cent of South African respondents said they wanted a dedicated communal space for socialising.

In future catering could be far more personal than the selection of sandwiches, beer or whisky, once considered the height of onboard luxury. Biological scanners in aircraft seats will gather information about travellers’ physiological and nutritional needs. The data will suggest food and drink to meet these requirements, which can be 3D-printed on board.

Technology will also revolutionise in-flight entertainment and customer service. Artificial-intelligence-powered personalisation will allow people to bring cloud-based work and entertainment profiles to their seats. Holographic flight attendants will field basic questions and requests, freeing up cabin crew to offer more personal service.

Although the next generation of supersonic jets will dramatically cut travel time by more than half, the report predicts that within 50 years we will see a trend for slow, experiential flights as consumers seek a leisurely start to their holidays.

This may not be as extraordinary as it sounds. In 1948, BOAC added a stop to its Southampton-Johannesburg service just so its customers could experience the ‘flight of angeles’ and see Victoria Falls from the air.

The Solent Flying Boat service wasn’t the quickest way to fly between the UK and South Africa – a Skymaster could do the trip in about 30 hours – but the BOAC planners thought the scenic night stop at the Falls would convince leisure passengers that the extra time the flying boats needed to cover the 5 600 nautical miles was worth it. It may yet prove to be an idea about 120 years ahead of its time.

To mark its anniversary, British Airways has opened its Centenary Archive Collection of images and videos including images of some of the aircraft, which pioneered the early African routes to its brand-new Club suite. 


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