British Airtours

British Airtours

British Airtours was a UK charter airline based at London Gatwick.

Originally established as BEA Airtours in 1969, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of then state-owned British Airways (BA) following the BEA-BOAC merger of the early 1970s.

British Airtours adopted the Caledonian Airways name when the newly privatised British Airways completed the acquisition of the rival British Caledonian in April 1988.

Caledonian Airways was eventually sold to UK tour operator Inspirations in 1995 marking BA's exit from the mainstream inclusive tour market.

In 1999 Thomas Cook acquired Inspirations and merged Caledonian Airways with Flying Colours to form JMC Air Services, a forerunner of the UK arm of the present day Thomas Cook Airlines.

Historic development

BEA Airtours was formed in 1969 as a division of BEA to provide it with a low-cost platform to participate in the then explosively growing inclusive tour (IT) holiday flights market, which until then had been the exclusive domain of wholly privately owned, Independent airlines. BEA saw this as a necessary "counter weight" to the Independents' rapidly growing scheduled activities that began "encroaching" on what the state-owned Corporations, i.e. BEA and BOAC, had traditionally regarded as their sole preserve.

The Independent charter airlines were suspicious of BEA's real motive to enter the IT market and thought that there was a "hidden agenda" to "destabilise" this market by undercutting the Independent carriers, none of which could match the Corporation's almost unlimited financial resources at the time. The Independents moreover thought that BEA Airtours was meant to take on the Corporations' excess staff as well as to absorb aircraft that were surplus to their requirements. They feared that this would lead to significant market distortions, creating excess capacity and further depressing the already low charter rates in a highly competitive market.

Commercial airline operations commenced from London Gatwick in 1970 with a fleet of nine second-hand ex-BEA De Havilland Comet series 4B aircraft.

In 1971 BEA Airtours had decided to replace the entire fleet with a similar number of larger capacity, longer range and more fuel-efficient ex-American Airlines Boeing 707-123Bs to enable it to commence non-stop, long-haul charter flights, including "affinity group" charters to North America. However, both Corporations opposed this decision. They insisted that any new aircraft should be exclusively sourced from the existing BEA and BOAC fleets.

Following the Corporations' intervention, BEA Airtours acquired seven former BOAC Boeing 707-436s. These aircraft had a greater seating capacity than required and were powered by four Rolls-Royce Conway engines, an older generation engine type than the four Pratt and Whitney JT3D turbofans which powered the ex-American 707-123Bs it had originally selected to replace its Comet fleet. This meant that the ex-BOAC 707s had higher operating costs. However, BOAC was prepared to sell these aircraft to BEA Airtours at a lower price than American was asking for its planes, which helped compensate for the cost differential. The first of these aircraft entered service in 1971 while the last aircraft of this batch joined the fleet in 1973, which was also the year during which BEA Airtours commenced transatlantic ABC flights. By that time most of the Comets had already been withdrawn from service and put into storage.

The oil crisis in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which led to a quadrupling of the price of a barrel of oil, substantially increased the operating costs of the remaining fuel-thirsty Comets and began to have an adverse impact on the airline's financial performance.

British Airtours, as the airline had become known following the creation of British Airways in 1974 as a result of the 1972 BEA-BOAC merger, therefore decided to retire its last remaining Comets during that year itself and to sell the entire fleet to Dan-Air.

Over the coming years British Airtours acquired additional Boeing 707s British Airways had inherited from BOAC.

When British Airways decided in the late 1970s to replace the aging and increasingly inefficient short-/medium-haul Hawker Siddeley Tridents and BAC 1-11s it had inherited from BEA with state-of-the-art Boeing 757s and 737s, a follow-on order for nine brand-new 737-236 "Advanced" aircraft was placed with Boeing. These aircraft, which were delivered to British Airtours' Gatwick base during the early 1980s, allowed it to replace all of its old, second-hand narrowbodied planes with brand-new equipment, thereby considerably enhancing its competitiveness vis-a-vis its Independent rivals.

In 1984 British Airtours took delivery of a Rolls-Royce RB211-powered Boeing 747-236B "jumbo" at Gatwick, its first and only brand-new widebodied aircraft. This aircraft was put into service on the airline's popular, long-haul ABC flights to North America.

In the meantime, British Airtours also began taking delivery of a small number of former British Airways Lockheed L-1011 "Tristar" widebodies, which initially supplemented its narrowbodied 737 fleet on the busier and more popular routes.

British Airtours adopted the popular Caledonian Airways brand in April 1988 when the newly privatised British Airways had completed the takeover of its former Gatwick-based rival British Caledonian. It also adopted a modified British Caledonian livery adapted from the contemporary, Landor Associates designed British Airways livery. The newly renamed Caledonian Airways moved its Gatwick operation from the airport's South Terminal into the then brand-new North Terminal, thereby concentrating most of the British Airways group's Gatwick services in the new terminal.

Caledonian Airways began replacing its Boeing 737 narrowbodies with additional ex-British Airways L-1011 "Tristar" widebodies as well as with a number of brand-new Boeing 757s sourced from the large 757 orders placed by its parent company. The former British Airtours 737s were re-configured in British Airways' contemporary short-haul two-class cabin arrangement and began replacing the BAC 1-11-500s British Airways had inherited from British Caledonian on the UK flag carrier's short-haul Gatwick routes.

In 1995 British Airways decided to exit the short- to medium-haul package holiday market and sold Caledonian Airways to UK-based tour operator Inspirations, then part of the US-owned Carlson group, along with its core fleet of five "Tristars". Following Caledonian's sale to Inspirations, the 757s were returned to British Airways.

Inspirations became part of the Thomas Cook group in 1999 when Caledonian Airways was merged with the Flying Colours airline to form JMC Air Services, which in turn became the UK arm of the present day Thomas Cook Airlines.

Following Inspirations' takeover by Thomas Cook, the former Caledonian Airways "Tristars" were withdrawn from service as these had suffered increasing, widely publicised reliability problems resulting in the travelling public's generally poor perception of Caledonian.

Incidents and accidents

On 22 August 1985 the fuselage of a British Airtours Boeing 737-236 "Advanced" (registration: G-BGJL), operating British Airtours Flight 28M, caught fire on the tarmac at Manchester Airport while preparing for take-off on a charter flight to the Greek island of Corfu. The fuel access panel on the aircraft's fuselage was pierced by a part of the compressor that had been ejected from the port engine as a result of a malfunction. The fire quickly engulfed the area around the front passenger door filling the cabin with lethal, toxic fumes. 53 passengers and two crew members died as a result, with most of them dying of asphyxiation after inhaling the toxic fumes.

Code data

Former two-letter IATA airline identifier: KT.


External links

* [ Former employees site]
* [ AAIB report No:8/88 - Boeing 737-236, G-BGJL, at Manchester Airport]

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