It was 40 years ago this month that British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) merged with British European Airways (BEA) to form British Airways. To commemorate the occasion, the airline has asked its millions of passengers to share memories of their times on board. Relatively few, however, will be in a position to recount how Britain's national carrier’s first-class experience has evolved over the decades.
While present-day first-class passengers might increasingly expect on-board Wi-Fi and entertainment on demand, in times past they were happy with a seven-course dinner and a complimentary Benson & Hedges cigarette after take-off.
Here’s a chronological look at the how the first-class experience developed aboard British Airways and its predecessors.
1927: British Airways forerunner Imperial Airways launches premium, 18-seat “Silver Wings” flights, departing from Croydon in London and flying to Paris. Advertising material stated that stewards “would point out places of interest en route”. The return fare for the 2hrs 30mins trip Paris was £11.11s.0d (around $AU20).
1949: BOAC launches a first-class service on Boeing Stratocruiser long-haul flights. Passengers are served six-course dinners, afternoon teas, cocktails and canapés – menus for “invalids, infants, vegetarians etc” and available if requested in advance and complimentary cigarettes are offered upon take-off and after meals. Fully reclinable chairs have in-built ash trays to ensure that indulgence can be enjoyed in comfort.
1951: BOAC launches Monarch, its “de-luxe dollar-earning service”, on Stratocruiser flights between New York and London. During the 11hr 15mins flight, passengers enjoy seven-course dinners and breakfast in bed; women passengers receive Speedbird beauty kits. BOAC’s official newsletter confirms the flight will leave America “at tea time”.
1952: BEA relaunches the Silver Wings service between London- departing from Heathrow this time - and Paris. The flight is slowed to 80 minutes so its 40 passengers can enjoy a leisurely lunch and they enjoy roast Aylesbury ducklinlg with outspan orange sauce on the inaugural flight, Benson & Hedges Silver Wing cigarettes and champagne served in plastic champagne glasses – a novelty at the time. The aircraft receives a personal salute from the senior traffic officer upon departure, return flights cost £15.19s.0d (approximately $AU27).
1966: BEA’s “unequivocally privileged” Sovereign first-class service launches on board Trident aircraft. The airline claims its modern air-conditioning system leaves the cabin “spring-air fresh – and the silence must be unheard to be believed”. The first-class seat, meanwhile, is “the most versatile, comfortable chair that man has ever designed”.
1976: The inaugural commercial Concorde flight travels from London to Bahrain. The aircraft sets new standards in luxury but is withdrawn from service in 2003. Competitor companies would later propose a return to commercial supersonic flight but they remain unfulfilled.
1978: BA’s first- and business-class passengers are treated to in-flight catering inspired by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (from 1558 to 1603). They are served dishes that were popular 400 years previously and can enjoy ale and Posset, an Elizabethan drink made by mixing hot milk, spices and liquers.1981: First-class is rebranded as “Crown First Class” and passengers are wowed by fully reclining “Sleeperseats” and entertainment made audible via “new Sony electro-magnetic headsets with softly padded earpieces”.
1989: An overhaul of the first-class product sees touch-button controls integrated into seats and passengers are offered “comfort bags”, amenity kits that include Floris cologne for women and a Highland Spring facial mist spray.
1995: Full-length 6ft 6ins beds are introduced to the first-class service, now branded simply as First. Meals are now served whenever the passenger desires, with cabin crew having trained under Michel Roux at Bray’s Michelin-starred The Waterside Inn to ensure they reach the highest standards of service.
2009: Having gone unused since the retirement of Concorde, flight number BA001 is assigned to the new 32-seat all-premium service flying between London City Airport and New York. Aimed at business travellers, it is the first BA service to offer in-flight Wi-Fi.
2010: BA spends £100 million on new first-class cabins. The new layout provides passengers with personal wardrobes and shoe compartments, and writing desks with leather trim; DR Harris toiletries are distributed in Anya Hindmarch-designed amenity bags. Food and drinks are served as and when desired, and the afternoon tea service is based on that served in London’s Dorchester hotel.
2013: BA commences A380 services, with the aircraft's first-class cabin accommodating 14 passengers and featuring menus developed in cooperation with London's Langham hotel.
The Telegraph, London