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air travel

air travel. Commercial carriage of passengers by aircraft or airship began only at the end of the First World War in 1919, based on war surplus, with the direct involvement of manufacturers—Handley Page in the UK, Junkers in Germany—in airline development. For much of the next 40 years, air travel offered an outstanding parable of British international economic failure, with route development lagging behind the market leaders, the imperial preoccupation in international travel, and modest aircraft design leading to the operation of a multiplicity of uncompetitive types. Paris and near-European routes were established in the early 1920s, and supported by subsidy from 1921. The Hambling Committee's recommendations led to the amalgamation into Imperial Airways in 1924, as the UK's ‘chosen instrument’, embodying an explicit British aircraft and engine policy. Imperial developed the routes to Singapore and the Cape to the neglect of Europe, and even there lagged behind the Dutch KLM (running services to Singapore by 1933).

Early routes combined air, rail, and sea: in 1932, Imperial's service to the Cape involved 33 stages and six changes of vehicle. Only with the flying boat did the routes to Alexandria (1937), Singapore and Sydney (1938), and the USA (1939) become fully ‘airways’. The railways helped develop domestic routes, which proved largely uneconomic even with mail subsidy (1934), and were grouped into the UK's second ‘chosen instrument’, British Airways (1935). Continuing poor performance led the Conservative government to nationalize and integrate both under Lord Reith into the new British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1940.

The war established air travel, accelerated aircraft technology, and created rapid growth by national carriers into the early 1950s, in which BOAC was a major participant. Continuing ‘buy British’ policy produced the first jet in the Comet (1952) and the first non-stop transatlantic aircraft, the Britannia (1957), but only one international commercial success, the Vickers Viscount (1953) which served British European Airways. The jet age truncated the competitive life of both the latter with the introduction of the Sud-Aviation Caravelle (1956) on European routes, and the Boeing 707 for the Atlantic crossing (1958), ironically after BOAC had established the first scheduled jet service with the Comet 4.

Despite control by nationalistic and arcane regulations under the International Air Traffic Association (1945), real costs fell as larger and more efficient aircraft were introduced, especially with the Boeing 747. Aircraft displaced from premium routes were applied to the package holiday trade, in which Britain led development through the 1950s and 1960s, and liberalization favoured renewed growth by independent carriers from 1965: passengers carried by UK charters increased fourteen times in the decade from 1963. The consequent introduction of reduced fares to scheduled flights with the ABC (1973) and APEX (1975) schemes further expanded the market, in which British Airways, recreated by merging BOAC and BEA in 1974, faced real competition. Rationalization and subsequent privatization (1986) made BA an international leader and aggressive competitor, notably in respect of Freddie Laker's ‘Skytrain’ in the late 1970s, and Richard Branson's Virgin in the later 1980s. Air travel continued to grow as real fares fell, but the impact of the terrorist attack upon the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 plunged the industry into severe crisis.

J. A. Chartres

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