Tuesday, August 25, 2009

90 Years of International Flight

International air travel began 90 years ago today, on Aug. 25, 1919, when George Stevenson-Reece ponied up about 44 British pounds to become the first (and only) paying passenger on the first regularly scheduled commercial international flight. It went from Hounslow Heath airstrip near London to Le Bourget Airport, Paris.

Stevenson-Reece flew on a direct ancestor of today's British Airways, called Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd. The rickety aircraft carried only Stevenson-Reece and the pilot, Capt. E.H. Lawford. The flight, carried out with the aid of a compass and visual sightings of landmarks on the ground, took 2 hours and 30 minutes, more than three times longer than the trip takes now.

Stevenson-Reece was a reporter for the London Standard, the only evening daily newspaper still publishing in the British capital. He or his newspaper paid the rather hefty fare, which would cost 1,706 pounds (about $2,800 USD) in today's money.

To mark the 90th anniversary of the occasion, BA put out a press release and the Standard sent one of its current reporters, Nick Curtis, aloft in a still-airworthy version of the Airco de Havilland 4A plane used on that first flight. Curtis didn't get to go to Paris, but he did get a nice ride above the Kent countryside, noting in his story that:

"Stevenson-Reece carried newspapers, a brace of grouse for the British ambassador Lord Derby, and some Devonshire cream for a restaurant suffering from a post-war lack of ingredients.''

The launch of international flying changed travel forever, although widespread commercial passenger service didn't really take off until after World War II.

In the 90 years since that history-making flight, BA - Britain's nationally owned flag carrier from 1940 till it was privatized by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in 1987 - made itself into one of the world's most distinguished airlines. It has often been an innovator:

In 1952, BA predecessor British Overseas Airways Corporation launched what BA tabs "the world's first pure jet service,'' flying between London and Johannesburg.

In 1958, BOAC started the first transatlantic commercial jet service, from London Airport (as Heathrow was then quaintly and memorably called) to New York's Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International).

In 1976, BA and Air France created the first and so far only supersonic jet passenger service, with the Concorde, which flew until 2003.

As it happens, I was aboard the last regularly scheduled Concorde ever flown, in the last of three Concordes that arched 11 miles high from JFK to Heathrow before touching down for the last time. BA laid on a party, complete with huge tented area and red carpet, at Heathrow. I imagine the final passenger manifest - which included David Frost, Joan Collins, Christie Brinkley and Piers Morgan, for celebrity-watchers out there - was carefully vetted in New York. At least I hope so, because I walked out of the party, out of the airport and to a waiting car without going through British Customs. It was an amazing feeling to just stroll into the United Kingdom.

In 2000, BA made another change, introducing the world's first fully flat-bed seat in business class, a move that has certainly caught on widely in long-haul travel.

In 2008, BA opened state-of-the-art Terminal 5, a classy new facility at generally woebegone Heathrow. The new terminal had a rocky opening but has largely stabilized. It saw 20 million custiomers in its first year of operation.

So, congrats, BA. And cheers, George Stevenson-Reece, wherever you are.

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