British World Airlines Ltd. History

Address:
Viscount House
Southend Airport
Essex
SS2 6YL
United Kingdom

Telephone: 44 (0) 1702 354435
Fax: 44 (0) 1702 331914

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1946 as Silver City Airways
Employees: 400
Sales: £45 million (1996)
SICs: 4516 Air Transportation, Scheduled; 4522 Air Transportation, Nonscheduled

Company Perspectives:

Fifty years in any business is a long time. In aviation terms the list of airlines surviving half a century is short, a matchless catalogue of world famous names. British World has now joined that unique band. Over the years British World has changed its course (and its title from time to time) as dictated by market forces. Today it is the last truly independent specialist airline of any size in the United Kingdom, self-sufficient in all areas and a major charter airline in the European scene.

Company History:

British World Airlines Ltd. has distinguished itself as an important regional airline. Its record of scheduled and charter service covering the far reaches of the British Isles, the British Empire, and beyond, in spite of the vagaries of its weather and the economy, has earned it a dedicated following of corporate and consumer clients. BWA joined an elite club of industry survivors upon its golden anniversary in 1996.

A Postwar Launch

Silver City Airways, headquartered in the airfield at Langley, was incorporated on November 25, 1946. Air Commander G. J. Powell served as managing director. The new airline took the nickname of the town of Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia, where Zinc Corporation, one of the company's owners, operated mines. Although the link to Australia was to some extent the company's raison d'etre, the company's maiden voyage was a round trip to Johannesburg.

Having survived a tedious air war, British civilians were ready to fly again after WWII. However, nationalization curbed the role of independent carriers, until it became apparent that British Overseas Airways Corporation could not hope to restore routes to pre-war levels.

Silver City Airways bought three new four-engined Avro Lancastrians, the civil version of the Lancaster Mk.3 heavy bomber, which comprised the company's entire fleet at the time. After providing for a crew of four, Silver City fitted the plane with 13 passenger seats. Demobilization made crewmen familiar with the plane available. The Lancaster had carried a larger payload than any other aircraft in Europe; this and its high speed (over 250 mph) made it a likely choice. This aircraft remained in service with Silver City only until 1949. The company acquired three additional military transports in 1947. These were the Douglas Dakota III (known in the rest of the world as the civil DC-3 or military C-47); they were slated for shorter flights.

In 1947, the company relocated to Blackbushe as the growth of Heathrow Airport forced the airfield at their former home to be closed. In the same year, Silver City leased its first Bristol Freightmaster (originally known as the Type 170 or Wayfarer), which had been developed as a kind of giant bush plane for the RAF's Pacific operations. In its passenger configuration, it was called the Wayfarer and seated 32. Along with one of the Dakotas, it was dispatched by Silver City in a memorable mission to airlift Hindu refugees from Pakistan. After this successful trial, four were called into service. The airline participated in another significant operation when it supplied three of its Freightmasters to the Berlin Airlift.

Silver City performed the first cross channel car ferry operation with the Freightmaster. The 42-mile, 25-minute flight from Kent's Lympne Airport to Le Touquet in France took place on July 13, 1948. At the time, ferrying by sea was a tedious experience. The project generated a great amount of interest and in its first summer, the seasonal (and beginning the next year, scheduled) service ferried 180 vehicles; in 1949, over 2,500 (including a handful of motorcycles and bicycles) were carried.

The Mk 32, first delivered in spring 1953, increased Freighter's capacity to three cars and 23 passengers. Nearly 40,000 vehicles were ferried this year; the figure had grown to 70,000 by 1958. Nevertheless, other still larger cargo craft were examined, including the French Deux Ponts and the Blackburn Beverly.

New routes across the Channel were added, as well as service to Stranraer and Belfast in Ireland. One-way fares for all these flights were about £7 for vehicles and £2.50 for passengers. Silver City's grass field at Lympne could not sustain so many flights, and alternative operations were moved first to Southend in Essex and then, in 1953, to West Malling. The company built its own airport near Lydd, Kent, called "Ferryfield." Operational in July 1954, it was the first civil airport to be built after WWII. The company's headquarters remained at Southend, however.

In the late 1950s, Zinc Corporation sold the company to the British Aviation Services Group, a subsidiary of the P&O Shipping Group which traded under the name Britavia. The operations of Air Kruise, another acquisition, were taken over by Silver City in 1958. BASG had acquired the northern carriers Lancashire Aircraft Corporation, Manx Airlines, and Dragon Airways.

Amalgamation in the 1960s

In 1962 British United's holding company, Air Holdings, bought British Aviation Services, Silver City's parent, in a move to concentrate resources in the face of increased competition from surface ships. By the end of 1962, all Silver City planes were either repainted with British United colors or retired.

British United had been derived from several companies. In 1947, Freddie Laker had founded Air Charter and Aviation Traders at Croydon. They were the other antecedent of British World Airlines. In 1951 Air Charter bought Surrey Flying Services and Fairflight.

The Belgian national carrier SABENA had formed an agreement with Air Charter in 1957. Air Charter's cross channel freighter service was known as the Channel Air Bridge at the time. In 1959, the Airwork Group took over Air Charter, and on February 25 the Channel Air Bridge was reorganized as a company unto itself. In July 1960, the Airwork Group itself merged with Hunting Clan to form British United Airways.

The combination of British United Airways and Air Charter was known as British United Air Ferries (BUAF). The air ferries segment finally began to falter in 1964, losing some business to newly introduced hovercrafts. Interestingly, after a general strike in France and an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain smote profits in 1968, the company set up a hovercraft ride over a grass field near its airfield at Lydd in order to attract nearby vacationers.

On October 1, 1967, BUAF became known as British Air Ferries (BAF). By this time, the company only controlled 5 percent of the car ferry market, compared to 27 percent five years earlier. It could no longer offer lower prices than sea carriers, although faster service seemed to ensure a niche. BAF's last car ferry occurred on New Year's Day, 1977. A similar downturn had reached the scheduled services in the early 1970s.

New Blood in the 1970s

T. D. "Mike" Keegan, who had founded Trans Meridian Air Cargo, bought a controlling interest in BAF in 1971. A former RAF Flight Sergeant, the energetic and strict Keegan was more visible than previous leadership.

The company's engineering unit, BAF Engineering, established in 1973, began to produce a series of unique products. Hawke Aircraft Parts produced a race car, ostensibly to promote BAF's lagging car ferry business, and produced a luxurious motor home known as the BAF Land Yacht. Only one example of each were made. These projects were in addition to the unit's role maintaining BAF's aircraft.

In late June 1977, Keegan sold Trans Meridian Air Cargo (but not BAF) to the Cunard Shipping Company for £3.4 million. Around the same time, BAF bought seven Heralds turboprops from the Royal Malaysian Air Force, one of the only sources for the reliable aircraft. The decade, which had begun with declines in ferry and passenger flights, ended with a whimper. At the beginning of 1979, British Island Airways took over several routes and aircraft from BAF, who laid off about 40 administrative employees.

Different Aircraft, Different Owners in the 1980s

In the early 1980s, BAF purchased most of the Vickers Viscounts owned by British Airways. As it did with the Herald, BAF lauded the turboprop's lower operating costs compared to the jets that most carriers used on international flights. At the same time, the company announced its intention to buy several of the new British Aerospace BAe 146 jet airliners for predicted service to southern Germany and France. As a result, the aircraft maker painted one of the test planes in BAF colors. However, the next BAe 146, a combination cargo/passenger variant, did not join the fleet for another eight years.

In 1983, Keegan sold BAF's commercial flying operations to the Jadepoint investment group for £2 million. Eventually all of BAF's flying operations were obtained by Jadepoint, as well as the Viscount travel marketers. Jadepoint soon acquired BAF Engineering as well, which was subsequently dubbed Jadepoint Aircraft Engineering for the next five years before resuming its prior identity.

In April 1983, the new owners established a one-plane operation, Jersey Air Ferries (JAF), in the Channel Islands. However, the JAF identity only lasted the summer. In 1983, Jadepoint bought five-year-old Guernsey Airlines from the bankrupt Inter City Airlines. The purchase gave BAF several new scheduled routes.

The company's experience in chartering to North Sea oil companies began shortly thereafter. It devoted two Viscount 800 turboprops, including one stand-by, for the four flights a day between Aberdeen and Sumburgh, which carried over 5,000 passengers a month. While BAF lauded the Viscount's low operating costs, customers enjoyed the plane's spaciousness.

In late 1983 Jadepoint entered the coach/air tour business with its "Skyrider" venture. Combination coach/air tours allowed British vacationers to holiday on the sunniest coasts of Europe on modest budgets. BWA had charted flights for inclusive tours--combination air/rail/coach packages--since the 1950s, when the packages were dubbed "Silver Arrow" services. However, their scope did not extend far beyond the Channel, only to Brussels or Paris.

In the mid-1980s, the company's aircraft leasing business produced £4 million a year in turnover. The company's first scheduled international service, from Gatwick to Rotterdam, began in 1985. However, administrative hindrances on the part of the Dutch caused the effort to be terminated two years later.

In 1987, a new base was established at Southampton to service Channel Islands routes. However, BAF began to show signs of a cash shortage, which resulted in the sale of Guernsey Airlines to Aurigny Aviation Holdings. It also announced the sale of some of its economical Viscount turboprops, and the discontinuation of the last of its own scheduled services (although it covered some routes for Virgin Atlantic).

These measures were not sufficient to stave off the company's going into Administration (British bankruptcy protection) in January 1988 due to the financial difficulties of its parent company, Jadepoint. The accounting firm Touche Ross managed the company during this period. However, the airline continued to produce a profit, as it always had, and picked up new contracts with Federal Express and Higgs Air Agency, the newspaper distributor.

A Shining Gold Anniversary, to 1996 and Beyond

Within a year Mostjet Ltd. was formed to purchase the assets of the company; Mostjet also acquired the assets of Baltic Airlines, also based at Southend. Ian Herman served as chief executive of this enterprise. However, BAF did not formally emerge from Administration until May 1989. It was the only British airline to ever accomplish the feat.

BAF planned to expand, and in 1991 it picked Neil Hansford as a new managing director. He had presided over the growth of TNT Express worldwide, a jet cargo service, for nine years. The company's CEO, Robert Sturman, joined in 1990.

A venture was proposed to operate a 747 freighter in cooperation with the American shippers Evergreen International. However, Evergreen had second thoughts about the project. The "Orient Express" project to link Hong Kong and several other southeast Asian cities also was aborted. To further Mostjet's difficulties, Federal Express canceled its contracts as it departed the European market in 1992.

Although its cargo business faced a very trying time, passenger service was up to an extent that the company briefly leased two Boeing 727s from Yugoslav Airlines before UN sanctions involving the combatants in the Balkans scuttled that deal. Two Adria Airways McDonnell Douglas MD-82s replaced them for the summers of 1992 and 1993.

Mostjet Ltd. was renamed British World Airlines Ltd. (BWA) on April 6, 1993. The new name replaced that of BAF as well, and the company executed a thorough redesign of its corporate image, including a sleek new leaping lion logo, and a new motto: "Chartering Excellence." BAF Engineering retained its name, however, for another couple of months before taking on the title "World Aviation Support" (WAS). Although WAS had expanded its expertise to cover maintenance duties for aircraft ranging from small piston-engined planes to large airliners, the company's specialty lay in servicing British Aerospace BAe 146 and One-Eleven types, both of which BWA also operated in its own flying operations.

BWA's marketing objectives continued to place a high priority on passenger flying, which was worth 70 percent of the company's business. Neil Hansford vacated his position as managing director at the end of 1993 in order to found the short-lived Euro Direct airline. Also in 1993, BWA opened the first scheduled route between Britain (Stansted) and Romania (Bucharest) by a British carrier in ten years. Although the service was popular, it was canceled after a year due to low margins. BWA won a £4 million a year contract ferrying British military personnel to and from bases in Germany in 1993.

BWA's performance for regular clients such as the Parcel Force and the Air Travel Group continued to earn it commendations and repeat business. It also supplied aircraft to larger carriers, such as Virgin, British Airways, and SABENA of Belgium, in times of peak demand. Profits in 1995 were £1 million on a turnover of £35 million.

In November 1995, its Shell Oil North Sea contract was renewed in the face of fierce competition as the airline committed to the purchase of new ATR 172 turboprops to replace its aging Viscounts, most of which continued to serve as freight carriers. The new turboprops consumed much less fuel per hour. The company has donated examples of its Viscount and Herald turboprops to aviation societies in England.

The thrust that pulled the company out of bankruptcy seems likely to propel it into the next half-century and beyond. Each decade seems to bring a new challenge to the company--new ownership, new aircraft types, and new markets--and BWA has repeatedly shown itself capable of rising to the occasion.

Principal Subsidiaries: World Aviation Support Ltd.

Further Reading:

  • "A Short History of British World Airlines," http://www.avnet.co.uk/ginsberg/air-bwa/hist-bwa.htm.
  • Reed, Arthur, "New Horizons at 50," Air Transport World, March 1996, p. 93.
  • Wright, Alan J., The British World Airlines Story, Midland: England, 1996.
  • ------, "British World's Golden Year," Air International, May 1996, pp. 268-274.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 18. St. James Press, 1997.

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