The UK used to have a lot more airlines than it does today. Most of them have ceased operations over the years, and several have merged at various times to ultimately form part of British Airways. British United Airlines is one of them. The private carrier was founded in 1960, operating various charter and scheduled services domestically, within Europe, and to Africa and the Americas. It merged into British Caledonian in 1970, which later became part of British Airways.
Formed from two other airlines in 1960
The story of British United Airways (BUA) starts with the merger of two other private UK-based airlines – Airwork Services and Hunting-Clan Air Transport.
Airwork Services was a long-serving private airline based in London. It was formed in 1928 and carried out many supporting and training roles for the UK military. After the Second World War, it also expanded into commercial flight operations, with its fleet of various Vickers, Handley Page, and Douglas aircraft. These included charter flights to Africa and the Middle East, transatlantic freight operations, and a low-fare passenger service to many parts of Africa.
Hunting-Clan Air Transport was another private operator, formed after the war in 1946 – initially as Hunting Air Travel, then adding Clan branding in 1953 following cooperation with the Clan shipping line. It operated freight, charter, and scheduled flights both domestically in the UK and to Africa. It cooperated with Airwork on the later African flights with a popular “Safari colonial” passenger service.
Hunting-Clan Air Transport operated several ex military aircraft including the Avro York. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia
These two companies merged in July 1960 to form British United Airways. The newly formed airline took on the aircraft and routes of its two predecessors. This included both military contracts (mainly based out of London Stansted Airport) and charter / scheduled operations (from a base at London Gatwick).
British United Airways’ first Managing Director was Freddie Laker. He had already been involved with Hunting-Clan Air Transport, having sold his previous airlines business’ to the company. Laker stayed with BUA until 1965 when he left to set up his own UK charter airline, Laker Airways.
Freddie Laker ran BUA for the first five years. Photo: Getty Images
More scheduled operations and growth in the 1960s
It was not long before British United Airways began to move beyond these inherited operations. Expansion of scheduled routes was a major priority of the new airline, helped by a 1960 law change in the UK to remove monopolies from the state airlines. This expansion was supported by an order for ten new BAC One-Eleven aircraft in May 1961 (which entered service in 1966). BUA kept the African services going but added many new destinations in Europe.
These early years also saw expansion through more mergers. In January 1962, British Aviation Services was merged into the company, and Jersey Airways followed a few months later.
British Aviation Services was the holding company for the UK airlines Britavia and Silver City Airways. These both had large UK-based operations. Britavia operated troop flights worldwide and several freight and leisure routes.
Silver City Airways likewise operated numerous short and long-haul freight and passenger routes, and became well-known for developing cross-channel ferry flight services from the UK using the Bristol Freighter and SuperFreighter.
British United Airways in the jet age
BUA started jet services with the Vickers VC-10 in 1964. It was the first private airline in the UK to operate jets (BOAC was the first overall with the Comet in 1952). These replaced its Douglas DC-6 and Bristol Britannia aircraft on long-haul routes.
Expansion continued in the second half of the decade, with new aircraft orders including five further BAC One-Eleven aircraft and a third VC-10. Route expansion continued, too, with BUA taking over the South American services of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) from the end of 1964.
By the end of the 1960s, BUA was by far the largest independent airline in the UK. It had ended its troop carrying flights and focused on more profitable scheduled and charter flights. It also operated an all-jet aircraft fleet by this time.
Sale of the airline
The UK aviation industry was shaken up in 1969 by the publication of a government report looking at the future of aviation in the country – titled “British Air Transport in the Seventies. ”
This recommended the creation of a privately owned airline that could take on state-owned monopolies like British European Airways (BEA) and British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).
BUA made an attempt to take on this role itself, but it did not work out. Instead, it gave rise to the new private airline of British Caledonian. This was formed when Caledonian Airways, a leading UK charter airline, took over BUA to form a new airline.
British Caledonian chose London Gatwick as its new base and took on all the routes and aircraft from BUA (it also purchased outright one BAC One-Eleven aircraft that BUA had leased). The aircraft were quickly repainted in the British Caledonian livery featuring a Scottish Lion Rampant on the aircraft’s tail.
British Caledonian expanded throughout the 1970s, adding several new destinations, including Paris and New York (competing directly with UK state airlines). The New York flights were the first flights to the US from an independent British airline. Fleet expansion and updates continued, too, with the airline selecting the Douglas DC-10 as its new long-haul aircraft from 1977. It also took on the Boeing 747 in the late 1970s (operating five passenger aircraft in total, alongside 12 DC- 10s).
In July 1987, British Caledonian Airways and British Airways announced they would merge with British Airways acquiring British Caledonian Airways’ assets for £ 237 million ($ 280 million).
British United Airways is an important name in the history and development of UK aviation. It only operated for around a decade but became the largest independent UK airline and lives on in merged operations today. Feel free to share any memories you have, or further historical details, of this historic UK airline.