Eighty five years ago (April 26) the first airline passengers from London arrived in South Africa, disembarking a biplane in Cape Town after a journey the length of Africa.
Imperial Airways, a predecessor to British Airways, had begun operating regular mail-only flights to the Mother City in January 1932 and, as it began expanding its route network across Africa, decided to test customer demand for a regular, commercial air service from London to Cape Town.
Flying was certainly a much quicker way to get to Cape Town than the Union Castle’s Round Africa service, which stopped at 20 ports and took nine weeks. By contrast travelling by air took just 10 days and the trip would have been a plane-spotter’s delight.
Passengers left London in a Handley Page HP42 before boarding a train for the next part of the journey. They then flew south in stages on a Kent Flying Boat, an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy, a Calcutta Flying Boat and then a De Havilland DH66 Hercules for the last leg to Cape Town.
In 1937 Imperial Airways expanded its route network to South Africa when it started the first flying boat service. The route from Southampton to Durban included 18 stops.
Meanwhile the Cape Town service continued to gain popularity and by 1938 had increased to two flights a week. The following year customers must have been delighted when new, faster aircraft were introduced and the trip was cut to four-and-a-half days.
During the war African services could no longer operate directly over Europe, so Imperial Airways’ successor, BOAC, began a weekly ‘horseshoe’ route from Durban to Sydney via Cairo and Karachi. A few months later a flying boat service linked Poole and Lagos as part of a route across central Africa to Durban.
Post war BOAC, as Imperial Airways had then become, started a weekly London to Johannesburg cargo service using Lancastrian aircraft. Soon afterwards passenger services were introduced.
BOAC continued the flying boat service, using Short Solents and reducing the number of stops. The new flight plan saw the luxurious flying boats departing Southampton and then flying to Augusta, Cairo, Luxor, Khartoum, Port Bell and Victoria Falls, before landing on the Vaal Dam.
The next significant development happened on 2 May 1952, when BOAC pioneered the world’s first commercial passenger jet service. A BOAC Comet flew from London to Johannesburg via Rome, Beirut, Khartoum, Entebbe and Livingstone in 23-hours, halving the previous flying time.
Now British Airways offers a double-daily, overnight service to Johannesburg, a flight that takes just over 11 hours. From October it will add more capacity by exclusively operating one of its newest and the largest aircraft in its fleet, the A380 superjumbo which has 469 seats.
Its Cape Town services have grown considerably since weekly direct services were introduced to the Mother City in 1982 and which Capetonians quickly dubbed the ‘Friday night Jumbo’.
Today, British Airways is the only airline to offer year-round direct services between London and Cape Town. This summer it will again operate its expanded double-daily Heathrow/ Cape Town service as well as the three weekly Gatwick/ Cape Town flights introduced over the 2016/17 peak season.
It’s 21-year franchise partnership with South African airline Comair means international and South African domestic and regional customers can connect to all South Africa’s major cities and regional destinations including Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mauritius on British Airways’ flights operated by Comair.
In keeping with its pioneering heritage, the airline has just launched a multi-million pound investment plan to benefit its customers, with a focus on excellence in the premium cabins and more choice and quality for all.
It will spend £400 million on Club World, with an emphasis on improved catering and sleep. At Heathrow a First Wing check-in area with direct security and lounge access has launched, and lounges around the airline’s network are to be revamped and improved. Customers can also look forward to the latest-generation Wi-Fi being introduced across the fleet during the next two years.
Sue Petrie, British Airways’ commercial manager for Southern Africa said: “It’s amazing to consider just how far things have progressed in 85 years – from a 10-day sojourn to an overnight flight – but innovation and customer experience remain as important as ever.”