Why Did BEA Merge With BOAC To Form British Airways?

Last month, we celebrated British Airways’ 100th birthday. The airline is the United Kingdom’s flag carrier, with a fleet of 278 serving over 200 destinations. However, the current incarnation of the brand was formed in 1974, following the merger of the UK’s previous two largest carriers. After years of domination, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British European Airways (BEA) joined forces.

Boeing 747 of BOAC
BOAC was one of two UK aviation giants before merging in 1974. Photo: Clipperarctic via Wikimedia Commons

BOAC was the UK’s state-owned carrier, formed in 1939, after British Airways Ltd and Imperial Airways merged. The outfit went on to operate flights during World War II. The airline continued to grow after the war and served 200 destinations at its peak.

Aviation giants

BEA was initially formed as the European division of BOAC but split off to become a registered company in its own right in 1946. The firm was also an international success as, during its last year of trading, BEA carried 8.74 million passengers.

It didn’t take long for the two UK aviation giants to start seeing conflict between each other. There were failed attempts between the two airlines to negotiate air rights through the British colony of Cyprus in 1953. BOAC’s chairman, Miles Thomas put forward the idea of merging as a solution to who should serve important oil regions in the Middle East. The British chancellor at the time, Rab Butler, was also in favor of this idea, but the opposition shot it down.

14 years later, the UK government had appointed Professor Sir Ronald Edwards as the chairman of a committee to explore the future of the country’s air transport industry. The Edwards Committee formally advocated the creation of a ‘British Airways Board’ to bring BOAC and BEA under joint management. However, the committee advised that BOAC and BEA should retain their individual identities.

Public interest

The objective of the Edwards Committee’s recommendations was to provide a long-term solution to satisfy individual customers. A priority for the committee was the facilitation of travel at the lowest price, consistent with an economic return on investment. An increased level of safety that was equal to the worlds best was also sought after.

BEA Vickers Vanguard (G-APEC)
BEA was originally a department of BOAC before seeing independent success from 1946. Photo: Arpingstone via Wikimedia Commons

The board ultimately recommended that the public sector should be reorganized with a ‘National Air Holdings Board’ maintaining financial and policy control over the two airlines. The board said that this would ensure the most effective deployment of traffic rights, marketing strength and operating resources.

Therefore, the British Airways Board was eventually formed on 1st April 1972, coinciding with the establishment of the Civil Aviation Authority. This was would remain as the unified regulator for British Aviation. Despite initial recommendations of retaining individual identities, the two companies fully merged to become British Airways on March 31st, 1974. Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airlines also transitioned to fall under the BA umbrella in this period.

Gone but not forgotten

BA continued to hold aircraft from its predecessors within its fleet after the merger. However, it soon retired the Standard VC10s that were operated by BOAC and also disused the BEA’s Vickers Vanguards.

British Airways Hawker Siddeley Trident 3B
British Airways continued to use the Hawker Siddeley Trident 3B G-AWZA, which was originally bought by BEA. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons

This year, in a blast from the past, BA painted a B747 in BOAC livery to mark their 100th birthday. We recently looked at the history of BA’s fleet, including aircraft before BEA and BOAC’s transition.