What Happened To British Midland International?

There used to be several more airlines operating from the UK than there are today. Anyone flying there before 2012 may well remember British Midland International (BMI). It was one of the larger UK-based airlines, operating up to 13% of all Heathrow slots at its peak. It ceased operations in 2012, following financial difficulties, and was acquired by IAG, the owner of British Airways. While some of its aircraft and routes remain, the brand is now long gone.

British Midland 737
A British Midland Boeing 737 in 1996 before it rebranded to bmi. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

BMI dates back to 1938

The seeds of British Midland International (BMI) were planted in 1938 when Roy Harben established a training school for Royal Air Force reserve pilots. Derby Aviation (named for the airport where the company was based) became the parent company in 1946. It gradually expanded beyond flight training with cargo and charter flights, and moved entirely into scheduled operations from 1953.

Initial service was just to Jersey, but international flights to Ostend began in 1956. Domestic UK services began in 1958, with the company then known as Derby Airways. In 1964, it bought another airline, Mercury Aviation, based at Manchester, and changed its name to Britsh Midland Airways.

British Midland Airways Douglas C-47
A British Midland Airways Douglas C-47 in 1965. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

Expansion from the 1970s

Britsh Midland Airways expanded its regional short-haul routes and also operated charters and leases. It took over the British Caledonian London to Belfast service in 1974, and the British Airways London to Leeds route in 1980 (it operated this until 2009).

It began competing with British Airways on key routes, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, in the early 1980s.  Early European routes launched included Strasbourg and Amsterdam.

BMI Vickers Viscount
A British Midland Vickers Viscount aircraft at Teeside airport in 1987. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

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Becoming BMI

In 2001, British Midland International adopted the brand “bmi.”  It also introduced its first widebody aircraft, the Airbus A330-200, the same year and began services to the US. The ‘Midland’ name apparently caused some confusion, with its similarity to British Midland bank and little to do with its international routes.

BMI A330-200
A BMI A330-200 in the new bmi livery. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

By 2005, it had become the third-largest UK airline, with a passenger volume of 10.1 million. Indian services began in 2005, Riyadh in 2005, Moscow in 2006, and Cairo and Amman in 2007. It expanded further in the Middle Eastern and North African markets in 2007 by purchasing British Mediterranean Airways.

BMI was taken over by Lufthansa in 2009, amidst financial problems but continued operating under the BMI brand. Several routes were dropped, and restructuring took place to reduce losses.

Donnington Hall
BMI purchased Donington Hall in Leicester for its headquarters in 1976. Photo: John Horner via Wikimedia

Purchase by IAG

BMI only stayed with Lufthansa for around two years. Losses continued, and in September 2011, Luftansa announced it was planning to sell the airline.

Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were interested in buying BMI. Both placed bids, but IAG offered substantially more and took over the airline in a deal with Lufthansa for £172.5 million (as reported at the time in The Guardian). The takeover increased IAG’s share of slots at Heathrow from 45% to 53%. As part of the deal, IAG had to give up 14 slot pairs. 12 of these went to Virgin, but it was still unhappy about the deal.

Merging into British Airways

IAGs ownership of BMI began on April 19th, 2012. BMI left Star Alliance and joined oneworld, along with IAG airlines British Airways and Iberia. The frequent flyer program, Diamond Club, closed and was merged with British Airways Executive Club and Avios.

Its all-Airbus narrowbody fleet transferred to British Airways, but its widebody A330 were instead returned to the leasing company. The narrowbodies were eventually repainted and refitted, but this took time.

British Airways Airbus A320neo
The Airbus fleet was merged with British Airways’ already large fleet. Photo: Getty Images

As for routes, there was obviously some overlap with British Airways. At the time of the takeover, BMI operated 26 routes from Heathrow; 10 of these were also served by British Airways.

CAPA (Center for Aviation) took a look at the routes remaining after two years of integration. By the end of 2014, BMI routes to  Agadir, Casablanca, Dammam, Marrakech, and Yerevan were ended, along with British Airways routes to Algiers, Dar es Salaam and Lusaka.

Many of the overlapping routes saw cuts in frequency. CAPA quote a few examples of these. For the three months from November 2014 to January 2015, British Airways operated 362 fewer flights to Manchester, 321 fewer to Edinburgh, and 173 fewer to Moscow (compared to combined totals for the same period three years earlier), for example.

This, of course, freed up slots for other destinations, a key benefit of the takeover for IAG. Over the same period, the largest slot increases were to Dublin (293), Geneva (215), and New York JFK (196).

What about flybmi?

If you think you have seen BMI aircraft in the air more recently, you are not mistaken. BMI Regional, rebranded later to flybmi, was a subsidiary of BMI. This was not part of the takeover and continued to operate until its own collapse in 2019.

Flybmi Regional Airline
BMI Regional operated Embraer aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

It operated a fleet of 17 Embraer aircraft at the time it ceased operations, most of which made their way to Scottish regional carrier Loganair.

Would you like to share any memories of British Midland, bmi, or flybmi? Or any extra details about their purchase and transfer into IAG. Let us know in the comments. 

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