Nostalgia in the air: 14 UK airlines gone but never forgotten

Dec 25, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Happy Christmas from all the team at TPG U.K.! If you’re in a bit of a food coma after Christmas dinner or sick of board games and festive telly, behold some airlines of old for a trip down memory lane. How many do you remember?

Many of us will have fond memories of jetting off on a Monarch 757 for that family holiday to Spain, but did you ever fly on a BOAC 747-100?

From industry game-changers like Freddy Laker’s “Skytrain,” to one of my personal old-school favourites, Dan-Air, we compiled a list of 14 of our favourite airlines from the past.

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Related: The lost airlines of Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia

1. Northeast Airlines (1951-1976)

Despite the name, the airline actually started out at Southend Airport (SEN) with a single Douglas DC-3. It continued to expand its route network to U.K. regional airports like Newcastle (NCL), Belfast (BFS), Jersey (JER) and the Isle of Man (IOM) as well as a handful of international routes, including Basel (BSL), Bilbao (BIO), Dublin (DUB), Malaga (AGP) and Santander (SDR).

Before the airline was merged into British Airways in 1976, it was operating a mixed fleet of aircraft including the first jet aircraft of the fleet pictured below — the Hawker Siddeley Trident.

A Northeast Airlines Hawker Siddeley Trident with the Northeast livery and British Airways name just after it had merged with BA. (Photo by Aero Icarus/Flickr)

2. Monarch Airlines (1968-2017)

Perhaps one of the U.K.’s most loved airlines, Monarch, started out as a charter with the aim of carrying British holidaymakers and families abroad at a time when air travel was really only feasible for the rich. The ’70s saw a rise in demand for the package holiday, which is what Monarch continued to excel at selling until the age of low-cost airlines. In 2004, the airline switched to becoming a solely low-cost operator after struggling to compete against other low-cost carriers offering seat-only fares rather than package holidays.

When Monarch entered into administration in 2017, it had bases in Birmingham (BHX), Leeds Bradford (LBA), London Luton (LTN), London Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN). In October 2017 when the airline finally folded, it became the largest-ever U.K. airline to collapse, leaving 110,000 passengers stranded around the world.

Perhaps Monarch's most iconic jet, the Boeing 757 in its retro livery (Photo by
Perhaps Monarch’s most iconic jet, the Boeing 757 in its retro livery. (Photo by Aero Icarus/Flickr)

3. Airtours (1972-2002)

The Airtours group started in 1972 as a group of travel agencies in Lancashire. In the early ’80s, it launched its own in-house charter airline whose first route was to the Caribbean in 1987. In October 1990, the airline became officially known as Airtours International Airways and first started flying McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft in March 1991 to European destinations.

Airtours was the first-ever airline to use the U.K.’s main Air Traffic Control at Swanwick for flight AIG550 from Gran Canaria (LPA) to Birmingham (BHX).

In 2002, the brand changed to MyTravel and the Airtours livery below was no more.

An old school Airtours DC-10 at Munich airport in 2001 (Photo by Klaus Brandmaier/Flickr)
An old-school Airtours DC-10 at Munich airport in 2001. (Photo by Klaus Brandmaier/Flickr)

4. Flying Colours (1996-2000)

The Flying Colours name and livery was very short-lived. In 2000, only four years after first appearing in the skies, the airline merged with Caledonian Airways to form JMC, which would continue to fly for two more years as JMC — the then-charter airline brand of Thomas Cook.

The charter airline was a game-changer in the aviation world, as its brand new 757 aircraft were the first in the U.K. to have LCD screens in its cabins.

Flying Colours 757 taken in 1998 (Photo courtesy Lewis Grant/Flickr)
Flying Colours 757 taken in 1998. (Photo by Lewis Grant/Flickr)

5. Thomas Cook Airlines (1986-2019)

The bankruptcy of Thomas Cook Airlines was one that saddened the nation and caused the biggest repatriation effort in peacetime history. It started life as Trans European Airways in 1986 but officially became known as Thomas Cook Airlines in 2007 when Thomas Cook Group and MyTravel Group merged.

In total, more than 165,000 passengers had to be brought home from overseas in popular holiday destinations after being stranded by the airline’s collapse.

Related: Inside a Thomas Cook repatriation flight on the world’s largest passenger jet

FARO, ALGARVE, PORTUGAL - 2019/08/31: A Thomas Cook Airlines Airbus 321 on the move at Faro airport. (Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Thomas Cook Airlines Airbus 321 on the move at Faro airport. (Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

6. Flybe (2002-2020)

Flybe is the most recent departure from U.K. skies and the first airline victim of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. As the continent’s largest regional carrier, it also flew more than half the U.K.’s domestic routes outside of London and had a total of 210 routes in 15 countries. The airline was purchased by Connect Airways in 2019 only months before its demise and was due to become a vital part of Virgin Atlantic’s network and create competition for BA on short-haul routes in the U.K. and Europe.

Related: Flybe collapses with all flights cancelled — here’s what you need to know

Of the 63 aircraft that it flew, 54 of them were Dash 8s.

Flybe aircraft are pictured on the tarmac at Exeter airport in Exeter, south-west England on March 5, 2020, following the news that the airline had collapsed into bankruptcy. - British regional airline Flybe crashed into bankruptcy Thursday after the deadly coronavirus proved to be the final nail in its coffin. The biggest operator of UK domestic flights said it has sunk into administration -- a last-ditch process aimed at salvaging at least some of the company. (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK / AFP) (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/AFP via Getty Images)
Flybe aircraft pictured on the tarmac at Exeter airport in Exeter following the news that the airline had collapsed into bankruptcy. (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)

7. Dan-air (1953-1992)

This airline started at Southend Airport (SEN) with one single aircraft — a Douglas DC-3. At one stage in its lifetime, it grew to be the second-largest slot holder at Gatwick. The airline was the first in the U.K. to have a female pilot in command of an aircraft and also claimed to be the first airline to transport a live dolphin.

Two BAE 146 and one 727-100 (G-BAEF) on stand at Newcastle Airport in 1989 (Photo by
Two BAE 146 and one 727-100 (G-BAEF) on stand at Newcastle Airport in 1989. (Photo by G B_NZ/Flickr)

The reason why “London” was included on the fuselage of the aircraft was to make sure the airline wasn’t confused with being Danish. That was no longer needed once British Airways bought the doomed airline for a single British pound in 1992.

G-BCZR Vickers Viscount on least to Dan Air at Guernsey Airport in September 1980 (Photo courtesy kitmasterbloke/Flickr)
G-BCZR Vickers Viscount on lease to Dan-Air at Guernsey Airport in September 1980. (Photo by kitmasterbloke/Flickr)

8. British Midland (1964-2012)

In 1964, the Midlands-based airline Derby Airways bought the Manchester-based scheduled and charter line Mercury Airlines and officially became known as British Midland Airways in 1964. In 1996, it became the first airline to introduce a domestic business class on main routes to London, which was called “Diamond EuroClass.”

G-BAPF -- A British Midland Vickers Viscount 814 at Coventry taken in 1980 (Photo courtesy Rob Hodgkins/Flickr)
G-BAPF — A British Midland Vickers Viscount 814 at Coventry taken in 1980. (Photo by Rob Hodgkins/Flickr)

Thanks to confusion surrounding the airline’s name in both the U.K. and abroad, the airline rebranded in 2001 and would be known from then on as BMI. After a long history, the airline, like many others, became integrated into British Airways after being bought by IAG from Lufthansa Group in 2012. Many ex-BMI A320s are now based at Gatwick and are still flown on mainly European leisure routes.

A BMI A320 on approach to Manchester Airport in 2008 (Photo by Liam McManus/Flickr)
A BMI A320 on approach to Manchester Airport in 2008 (Photo by Liam McManus/Flickr)

9. Britannia Airways (1964-2005)

In its heyday, Britannia Airways was the largest holiday airline in the world. Based in airports up and down the U.K., it carried holidaymakers to destinations around the world, from European favourites like Palma (PMI) and Paphos (PFO) to far-flung destinations where there is no longer a direct route like Natal (NAT) in Brazil. In 2005, the airline was rebranded as Thomsonfly after a reorganisation of TUI‘s U.K. operations, which took over ownership of the airline in 2000.

Nicky Kelvin about to board a Britannia 737 in 1987. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

TPG UK’s Director of Content, Nicky Kelvin, has great memories of the airline.

“Britannia holds a very special place in my heart as the airline that flew me to most of my childhood holidays, and just the sight of its beautiful, regal livery still gives me goosebumps,” Kelvin said.

“In 1998, shot at Manchester Airport, Britannia was the focus of the first series of the TV show ‘Airline’ (before sadly switching to EasyJet for later series),” Kelvin continued. “This inside look at the airline compounded my love for it, along with grilling my mum’s friend, who was Britannia cabin crew, on the inside scoop.”

Nicky Kelvin in his mum's arms onboard a Britannia 737 in 1987 (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)
Nicky Kelvin pictured in his mum’s arms onboard a Britannia 737 in 1987. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

10 & 11. Air 2000/First Choice (1987/2008)

Founded as Air 2000 in 1987, tour operator First Choice officially commenced operations in 2004 as the charter airline of TUI. It lasted only four years but was one of the biggest players in the U.K. airline industry carrying six million passengers in 2006.

An Air 2000 Boeing 757. (Photo by Airlines Safety Cards/Flickr)

The airline was to be the first U.K. airline to operate the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but due to delays, the airline had already become Thomson through a merger with Thomsonfly and therefore inherited the orders.

First Choice Airways Boeing 757 at Grenoble Airport (G-OOBG) in 2007. It flew its last flight for TUI as BY527 on 21 October 2019 (Photo courtesy Thierry Gay/Flickr)
First Choice Airways Boeing 757 at Grenoble Airport (G-OOBG) in 2007. (Photo courtesy Thierry Gay/Flickr)

12. Laker Airways (1966-1982)

Sir Freddy Laker’s Laker Airways made history in 1977 when it operated the U.K.’s first-ever long-haul, “no frills” low-cost flight from London Gatwick (LGW) to New York (JFK) and would become later known as the “Skytrain.” Passengers could get a one-way ticket to the Big Apple from £33 in the winter and £38 in the summer.

Laker Airways was also the first airline outside of North America to operate the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, pictured below.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in the Laker Skytrain livery. (G-BELO) taken in 1978. (Photo courtesy Lewis Grant via Flickr)

Unfortunately, due to the economic climate in the U.S. and U.K. in the early ’80s, the airline struggled to stay afloat. That, plus increased competition when Pan Am dropped its lowest economy fares on the same route in 1981 meant that the end was near for Laker Airways. Its last flight was on 5 February 1982, when it officially went bankrupt.

13 & 14. BEA and BOAC (1939-1974)

This airline was created through the merging of Imperial Airways and British Airways Ltd, as it was known back then. From continuing to fly passengers during the Second World War to flying the “flying boat” and having numerous fatal accidents during its lifetime, BOAC had an eventful history.

A BOAC 747-100 climbing out of Heathrow in September 1972 (Photo courtesy ƒliçkrwåy/Flickr)
A BOAC 747-100 climbing out of Heathrow in September 1972. (Photo by fliçkrwåy/Flickr)

The airline’s European and domestic flights were operated by another division called British European Airways (BEA).

BEA Vickers Vanguard V951 at Manchester Airport in April 1963 (Photo courtesy Ken Fielding/Flickr)
BEA Vickers Vanguard V951 at Manchester Airport in April 1963. (Photo  by Ken Fielding/Flickr)

Finally, in 1974, BOAC was officially merged with BEA to create the British Airways that we know today. BA brought back the liveries of both BEA and BOAC as part of its 100-year celebrations in 2019.

Bottom line

Some of these pictures will seem truly vintage while others may seem like yesterday. British aviation has definitely been eventful to get us to the point we’re at today.

Featured photo by Rob Hodgkins/Flickr

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