British Airways, also known as BA, used to be a respected flag flyer for Britain. How sad, then, to see the level to which they descended in order to stifle Richard Branson's attempts to establish a competing airline in the shape of Virgin Atlantic.

The apex of the dirty tricks campaign which BA waged against Branson was when BA employees abused their access to the central seat-booking computer system to obtain names and contact details of Virgin Atlantic passengers. These passengers were contacted by BA staff, masquerading as Virgin employees, and were informed of fictitious problems with their flight, ('mechanical problems with the plane', etc). The caller would then offer to refund their fare and book them on a BA flight instead. Richard Branson discovered this deception and took BA to court, where he won.

The final nail in the coffin of the BA campaign against Virgin was when the CAA allowed Virgin Atlantic into Heathrow, (they had previously been restricted to Gatwick). This opened up many more potential routes to Branson, ensuring that he would not got the same way as Sir Freddie Laker.

For the record, they're not even "The World's Favourite Airline" anymore - that honour belongs to Lufthansa.

Essay On the Wonders of Modern Air Travel
Written in March, 1995

It was a dark and stormy night.


Actually no it wasn't. It was one of those drab English gray November days which everyone says they hate, but I actually quite miss. The trip was a simple one, I had it planned to perfection, and had performed it without flaw many times before.

Simply put, I was to fly to Stuttgart from London Heathrow. This is a direct flight which normally takes about an hour and a half (not including time spent sat in the aircraft while the pilot explains for the thirtieth time why we've missed our slot, and why the half-a-mile-an-hour crosswind is delaying our departure.)

Although the airlines tell you to be checked in two or more hours before departure, inter-European flights can be left until an hour or forty-five minutes before, or even later, and on one notable occasion, three minutes before. But that's a different story.

I suppose I should have been alerted to my impending predicament by the clusters of angry-looking travellers thronging the information desks and milling around in a good impression of Brownian motion. But I barged my way with a friendly smile, inflicting broken toes and dislocated shoulders willy nilly, to the British Airways check-in desk where a tired and despondent lady whom I shall henceforth call Madame Haggard took my tickets off me.

I was, of course, operating purely on Airport Autopilot. The frequent travellers among you will know what I mean: airport experience goes from exciting and exotic, through routine, to helishly boring; at which point the Autopilot goes on and one navigates check-in, metal detection and boarding in the kind of Zen-like trance usually experienced after finding yourself at your front door after a night on the town and having no recollection of the journey home.

"BA926 to Stuttgart, I'm afraid that's been cancelled.", said Madame Haggard, bracing for impact.
"Just the one piece, the other's hand luggage" I intoned, working through the Airport Prayer.
"I'm sorry, didn't you hear me? I said your flight's been cancelled", she repeated, looking at me as though I was an escaped loon.
"Just the one piece, the other's hand luggage", I tried again, staring into the middle distance.
She snapped her fingers in front of me, and slapped me about a bit. Well, actually she didn't, but she'd have liked to, I'm sure.
"Mr Hawksley," she said, very slowly, as though I was from Mars and only spoke Martian, "Your, flight, has, been, cancelled."
"WHAT?!?" I exploded, finally roused out of the trance.
"Yes, you'll have to go over the information desk and ask about a other options."

I joined the queueing masses (it's okay, I'm British. We queue.) at the BA information desk. I failed to notice that there were in fact three or four intertwining queues, and I picked all the wrong ones before meeting Madame Haggard's twin sister. I thought about loosing a volley of abuse against BA management for allowing a strike to happen, but she looked on the very verge of death and I thought better of it.

I was told that I could catch a flight later that evening from Heathrow to Munich, where a BA bus would transport me to Stuttgart airport. I thought 'No problem, I can catch the train home from there' and accepted.

The flight to Munich was delayed. By two hours. We were told that as public transport would have ceased by the time we got to Munich, the BA bus would take us to our doors.

By this time, the group of disillusioned Stuttgart-bound travellers numbered four and we trudged off to the cafe and plotted terrible revenge against BA. I vowed to try to beat my record of four cups of tea on this flight and reduce their profits by about thirty new pence.

We boarded the flight, which passed without (major) incident. The pilot announced the major towns as we flew over - one was Stuttgart, oh the irony, just let me out here please. I drank about eight cups of tea and felt smug.

Actually, funny things happen when I ask for tea on airplanes; usually just as soon as the stewardess has asked "Tea sir?" and has poured it out, we invariably hit turbulence. Now don't get me wrong, I love turbulence. Seriously, I think it's great. It's rarely life threatening and can be darned good fun if you like roller-coasters and that sort of thing. The only problem is, flying boiling liquid is rarely good in enclosed spaces like aircraft. On previous flights, people have had my tea in their laps, down their fronts and in their faces. Sometimes two or three rows back, although I never seem to get hit.

We landed at Munich, barely three hours late and deplaned through the maze that is Baggage Claim, sped through Customs in the Green European channel (leering obligatory at the non-Europeans queueing to be glared at by the Frontier Control - well, they all leer at me when I'm out of Europe), and made for the BA bus to Stuttgart, non-stop, air conditioned luxury, mind the gap, tickets please, off we go!

There was no bus.

The gang of four - one of whom I learned was the Engineering manager for British Airways at Stuttgart - roamed up and down Munich terminal looking for the bus, but to no avail. The check-in and information desks were already closed and the remaining people filed out and left us alone in the billion-mile long hallway that is Munich airport.

In the middle distance, we spied a bus driver, but by the time we'd got to where he was, he'd gone home, had a shower and gone to bed. Probably.

We cast around, nearly desparate to get home, it being abount midnight and us being alone in a foreign city with about zero Deutschmarks between us.

After about thirty minutes, our own flight crew emerged from about three doors down. We shouted and started running for them, but they were too quick and escaped in their crew bus to their luxurious hotel while we died of exposure. Seldom have I seen four cabin crew and two pilots run so quickly.

Finally, as we swept the carpark, runways and most of Bavaria for the BA bus, the resourceful engineering manager, whilst attempting to dial out on a phone located at one of the information desks, noticed the number for the 'BA Duty Manager'.

Ten minutes later, the duty manager appears from the inner temple of the BA office to try to calm us down. He achieved this one hundred per-cent by giving us free beer. Oh, our flight was delayed was it? Yes, he had heard about the strike. No, there is no bus. No, sorry, nobdoy had told him. Just wait here, he's going to call HQ and see if he can do anything.

We pointed to our tickets which say 'To: Stuttgart' and mumbled about legal obligations of carriage. He began to look squeemish and hastened off to delegate the decision upward, which, I have learnt, is the thing to do if you don't want the responsibility.

After about twenty-four hours, he reappeared, with more beer (hooray!) and told us that they'd put us in a taxi to Stuttgart airport, would that be okay? Uh, provided that they pay, of course.

So we rode the two hours back to Stuttgart in a Mercedes taxi at about Warp Speed 8. On the way, we bullied the driver into doing a door-to-door trip. I got home, absolutely dog-tired, at about two in the morning.

I was the last one out of the taxi and the meter was reading DM 600, presumably it would up to DM 1000 or so by the time he got back to Munich.

I thought of this and grinned evily, revenge is sweet.

British Airways (BA), "the world's favourite airline," has been the United Kingdom's largest airline since its creation from the 1974 merger of intercontinental carrier BOAC and UK-Europe carrier BEA. Its lineage can be traced back to the first daily scheduled service in the world, Aircraft Transport and Travel (AT&T)'s flight between London and Paris in 1919. AT&T later became part of Imperial Airways, which merged into BOAC.

Both BOAC and BEA were parastatals owned by the British government, and British Airways was also a parastatal during its first few years of life. The airline was slowly privatized between 1979 and 1987: once the government's hand had left the company, BA merged with British Caledonian, inexplicably renaming its British Airtours subsidiary to "Caledonian" (which it ended up selling in 1995).

While the Gulf War screwed up the airline industry worldwide, British Airways kept itself afloat by a healthy combination of downsizing and expansion. They left Ireland, revamped their operations at Gatwick Airport, opened a German airline called Deutsche BA, and bought half of the French airline TAT and a quarter of Australia's Qantas. They attempted to buy part of Sabena, but were turned down by the European Commission: then, in 1992, they announced a major investment in a struggling USAir, before abandoning it in the face of American regulators' disapproval and settling for a smaller portion of the airline.

The BA-US relationship ended up becoming one of the first successful code sharing arrangements in history, but BA's next major love affair, a code share with American Airlines proposed in 1997, fell flat. USAir, meanwhile, decided that BA's infidelity was questionable, and divorced itself from BA, becoming an independent US Airways. While BA and AA still can't codeshare (together, they own 70% of the London-US market, which would make them a monopoly in regulators' eyes), their relationship was the foundation of the successful oneworld airline alliance.

Also in 1997, BA introduced one of the most dramatic livery designs since the days of Braniff International. Each aircraft's tail had its own unique pattern and colors, based on the ethnic designs of a BA destination (African zigzags, Chinese kanji, Dutch delft). This scheme lasted until 2001, when BA decided that it lacked identity, and replaced it with a Union Jack-like tail emblem, with a speedbird-shaped ribbon by the front doors.

Today, BA serves 159 destinations in 75 countries, and has a global reach that is paralleled by very few airlines, with flights to six continents from Heathrow and Gatwick Airport. Their fleet consists of:

64 Boeing 747
43 Boeing 777
21 Boeing 767
36 Boeing 757
72 Boeing 737
10 Airbus A320
28 Airbus A319
27 Embraer RJ45
16 Avro RJ100
3 BAe 146
13 Jetstream 41
13 BAe ATP
5 ATR 72
15 de Havilland DHC-8

Their widebody aircraft feature private cabins in first class. Until 2003, BA was also one of only two airlines operating the Concorde (the other was Air France).

With their fast planes, funny hats, and worldwide network, it's easy to see how BA bills itself as the world's favourite airline. But then again, there's always Virgin Atlantic.

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