‘If this business were split up, I would give you the land and bricks and mortar, and I would take the brands and trademarks, and I would fare better than you.’
—John Stuart, Chairman of the Quaker Oats Company
Daniel Wright’s blog: The Beauty of Transport (https://thebeautyoftransport.com), is about a phenomenon which will be familiar to our members and followers: the ways in which transport (both vehicles and infrastructure) can make the world a more beautiful and interesting place. If you haven’t come across his blog before, it’s well worth reading.
One of his themes is the corporate identity of BOAC, and there is a very good page on the subject. I agree with Daniel when he states that BOAC had: ‘… one of the greatest British transport corporate identities of all time, a glamorous and suave branding that remains a symbol of all that was once great about British air transport, even if it has long since vanished from the civil aviation industry. Even the full name of BOAC – British Overseas Airways Corporation – evokes a lost era of patrician authority, an imposition of traditional British values on a world that would surely be grateful for such attention.’
In my book, BOAC and the Golden Age of Flying, I have written on a similar theme: ‘The decision by Atlee’s government, in 1946, to create two new state-owned airlines, BSAA and BEA, while allowing BOAC to concentrate on its traditional Empire and transatlantic routes, now seems difficult to defend. It came as part of a huge post-war nationalisation programme in which civil aviation was one of many industries to be taken into public ownership. Today, virtually all of them, including civil aviation, have been re-privatised, but nationalisation remains a hot topic of debate. In the 2017 general election the Labour Party campaigned to bring rail companies, energy supply networks, water systems and mail delivery back into public ownership.
There had been talk of merging BOAC and BEA as early as 1953, following squabbles between the two over traffic rights. BOAC held rights to stop in several European cities, notably Rome, Frankfurt and Zürich, in order to pick up passengers for their Empire routes, but the fact that BOAC could also carry passengers into these cities from London had long riled BEA. At the same time, BEA had been using an agreement with Cyprus Airways to carry passengers beyond Europe into the Persian Gulf, which BOAC saw as exclusively their territory. Each accused the other of poaching and the row escalated to ministerial level. The chairman of BOAC, Miles Thomas, proposed a merger and got backing from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rab Butler, but Treasury mandarins poured cold water on the idea.
In 1969 the government commissioned the Edwards Report which recommended creating a new British Airways Board to manage both BOAC and BEA, as well as the two regional British airlines: Cambrian Airways (based at Cardiff), and Northeast Airlines (based at Newcastle upon Tyne). The report clearly recommended that: ‘BOAC and BEA should retain their individual identities. There should be safeguards to avoid over-centralisation in the Holdings Board, a majority of whose members would also be on the boards of one of the Corporations or BAS.’
The new board took over in April 1972, and initially followed the Edwards Report’s stipulation that each airline should retain its own individual branding, but within two years they had decided to fully merge the four carriers into a single airline to be known as British Airways. The new airline commenced operations on 31 March 1974.
BOAC, arguably the most recognised airline brand in the world, had disappeared, and it would take more than a decade for the new British Airways to establish itself as a clearly defined brand in the minds of the travelling public. By 1991, Pan American, the world’s other great airline brand, had collapsed into insolvency - the Golden Age of Flying was over.
Today, the value of brands and corporate identities is better understood than it was in 1974. Analysts have shown that a popular brand can constitute 50 per cent or more of the value of a business. In 1989, the London Stock Exchange endorsed the concept of brand valuation by allowing the inclusion of intangible assets when seeking shareholder approval in acquisitions. Financial managers and planners are increasingly using brand equity tracking models for their analyses of businesses and calculations of their worth.
The airline business too, has lately come to recognise the value of well-established brands. When Air France and KLM were merged in 2004, each retained its individual identity. When British Airways’ holding company, the International Airlines Group, took control of other flag-carrying airlines, including Iberia and Aer Lingus, they allowed them to keep their unique identities. Sadly, these lessons came too late for BOAC, BEA, Cambrian and Northeast, who were consigned to the archives of history.
Nevertheless, the brand proved too strong to vanish entirely without trace. As I write these words a British Airways Boeing 747-400, beautifully repainted in BOAC’s most famous livery (a golden Speedbird on a dark blue tail), is thrilling crowds at air shows and reminding us that air travel once had a Golden Age that will never be repeated.