Was Selling Low Cost Carrier ‘GO’ BA’s Greatest Mistake?

While many may be familiar with LEVEL, the new low-cost airline launched by British Airways owner IAG, much fewer are aware of the British Airways low-cost carrier history. In 1998 British Airways launched a budget airline under the name Go. The airline was supposed to be challenging the low-cost model which Ryanair and EasyJet had so successfully launched. Various reports even suggest that BA’s CEO of the time had copied Stelios Haji-Ioannou‘s business plan.

Questionable Beginnings

Back in 1998, the world was swept away by the low-cost carrier. All of a sudden flying became so much more accessible to so many more passengers. Not wanting to miss a trick, British Airways decided to join in on the excitement. This is after Barbara Cassani, who went on to head the subsidiary, dreamt up the idea while flying on Concorde. According to Behind Enemy Lines by James Curtis, BA’s CEO at the time, Bob Ayling, requested to meet EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou. He allegedly claimed that he was fascinated by how the entrepreneur had made the low-cost airline formula work. This is when Stelios supposedly showed Bob Ayling his business plan.

british airways low cost carrier
GO was the British Airways low-cost carrier from 1998 until 2005. Photo: Aero Icarus

Clearly, the launch of this new airline did not please Mr Haji-Ioannou. The businessman who owns the Easy brand protested against the formation of this new airline. The airline’s inaugural flight departed from Stansted bound for Rome in May 1998. Fare paying passengers included Stelios Haji-Ioannou, in addition to several other EasyJet employees. The EasyJet employees immediately took an aggressive stance against Go, turning up to the flight in orange boiler suits. Once onboard, they began to hand out vouchers for free flights aboard EasyJet.

british airways low cost carrier
The airline flew a number of leased B737-300 aircraft, similar to low-cost rival Ryanair. Photo: Aero Icarus

Hundreds Of Thousands Of Passengers

At the time of the airline’s launch, Bob Ayling told the BBC:

By offering competitive fares and flying to Europe’s most popular cities, this new airline will quickly become a favourite with the budget traveller. We expect hundreds of thousands of people who have never taken to the air before, to travel with the new company. This is a new and exciting sector of the European air travel market and British Airways wants to be part of it, becoming the best of the new low-cost carriers, not watching from the sidelines.

Eventual Failure And Sale

British Airways never quite successfully figured out the low-cost model. However, Barbara Cassani, the lady in charge of the subsidiary, ended up making a tidy profit of the venture. In 2001 the airline was sold to an investment firm called i3, who in turn sold the airline to its biggest rivals EasyJet a year later in 2002. Following the acquisition, Easyjet merged the airline’s operations with its own.

british airways low cost carrier
GO was sold after just 3 years of operation, before being sold again to EasyJet a year later. Photo: Aero Icarus

Was This BA’s Biggest Mistake?

The sale and demise of GO probably wasn’t the worst idea. The airline wasn’t doing great and was being heavily subsidised by British Airways. There is the argument that things may have worked out, but BA would’ve probably made more losses before gains. At the time British Airways may not have fully understood where the industry was going. They were concerned that they were losing British Airways passengers to Go. Something that Emirates CEO Tim Clark is all too aware of with the launch of their new premium economy product.

Since then British Airways parent IAG has gone on to form a new low-cost airline called LEVEL. Unfortunately, due to the high cost of Air Passenger Duty, the airline has no plans to fly from the UK any time soon. Only time will tell if LEVEL is a success. Did you fly on GO back in the day? Let us know below!