The current British Airways pilots’ strike is the latest manifestation of a problem which bedevilled BOAC and Imperial Airways throughout their histories. BOAC received its first three Boeing 747s in May 1970, but they remained firmly on the ground for months while the corporation argued with its pilots over crewing requirements.
Nor was that the first time BOAC had fallen out with the pilots and their union, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA). In 1924, Imperial Airways had spent the first three weeks of its existence grounded by a pilots’ strike, and relations with its pilots had always been uneasy.
BALPA was established in 1937 by Imperial Airways pilot Eric Lane-Burslem, who, when flying an ice-laden four-engine biplane, had a narrow escape after all four engines cut out at 9,000 feet. This, along with another serious incident two years earlier, persuaded Lane-Burslem to form a pilots’ association. The first official mass meeting of pilots was held on 27 June 1937.
In 1952, when a BOAC Comet crashed taking off from Rome, the captain had not only been blamed, he had been forced to sign an admission of guilt and demoted to flying the Avro York, then the slowest aircraft in BOAC’s fleet. Eight other Comet pilots had been disciplined for accidents during the brief period before de Havilland acknowledged there was a design flaw and modified the Comet’s wing. These incidents had led to a feeling among BOAC pilots that they would always be blamed for accidents and that did little to improve relations with management. Additionally, BOAC pilots’ pay had fallen some way behind that of American and many European pilots. Retired BOAC pilot Ian Frow reminisced: ‘As for the rewards of the job for my first year of employment – spent mostly on the ground doing a mini university course on navigation, BOAC paid me just £50 a month – as a “cadet pilot”. Once qualified, the salary rose slowly but steadily with seniority and rank. However, when, after eighteen years I achieved my first command on the Boeing 747, my salary did not exceed £7,000 per annum, by Government command.’
In the late 1960s a first officer on Boeing 707s, Norman Tebbit, became a shop steward for BALPA and began to negotiate for better pay and conditions. Tebbit, who later held several cabinet roles in Margaret Thatcher’s government, organised a pilots’ strike in 1968 which completely grounded BOAC for several days, but ultimately led to pilots getting more money and other privileges, including the right to ‘bid’ for their favourite routes. A long-standing demand of BALPA had been for a minimum of three pilots on the flight deck, and when BOAC proposed to operate the 747 with only two, BALPA refused to fly it. It took BOAC close to a year to resolve the dispute. During the time that the first three jumbos were grounded, their engines were leased to Pan American.