Flying Radlett to Paris for £25

In 1919 the government lifted restrictions on civil flying in Britain and aircraft manufacturer Frederick Handley Page decided to establish his own fledgling airline, Handley Page Transport Limited, which was equipped with converted wartime surplus bombers.

On 25 August 1919 Aircraft Travel & Transport Limited (AT&T) started the world’s first sustained international commercial air service, which flew between London and Paris. Eight days later, on 2 September 1919, Handley Page Transport inaugurated their Paris service, flying from Radlett Aerodrome.

The flight would set you back £25 for a single ticket, or £40 for a return, not a great deal compared to today’s low cost airlines, but a small fortune almost a century ago.

In January 1923 the British government, under the Conservative Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law, was anxious to seek advice on the ideal way for the country to continue to subsidise air transport. Sir Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for Air, appointed Sir Herbert Hambling, the deputy chairman of Barclays Bank, as chairman of the Civil Aviation Subsidies Committee, also known as the Hambling Committee.

The committee recommended creating a nationalised airline and on 1 April 1924 Imperial Airways was formed by the merger of the air transport business carried out by the civil airlines Handley Page Transport, Instone Air Line, Daimler Airway and British Marine Air Navigation Company.

Imperial Airways flew its first passenger service between Croydon Aerodrome, just south of London, and Le Bourget, near Paris, on 26 April 1924. Interestingly the new airline’s first departure was delayed due to a pilots’ strike.

This three panel triptych cover was carried around the world in 1939. The intrepid  passenger took-off on 24 June from New York and flew to Shediac, Botwood, Foynes, Southampton, Cairo, Karachi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, Honolulu and San Francisco, before returning to New York on 28 July.

The flight was completed on a Pan American Airways Boeing 314 Clipper, an Imperial Airways Short S23 flying boat and a Foreign Air Mail (FAM) northern route. FAM routes were allocated by the US Postal Service to US airlines to enable them to carry mail between the United States and foreign countries.

Rapid growth in the civil aviation industry quickly followed and many new smaller airlines were formed. On 30 September 1935 the Whitehall Securities Corporation, owned by the Honourable Clive Pearson, established Allied British Airways by merging the public company Hillmans Airways with their privately owned companies Spartan Air Lines, British Continental Airways and United Airways. Within a month the new company had become simply British Airways and on 11 December 1935 it became a publicly listed company. The acquisition of Highland Airways and Northern and Scottish Airways followed shortly afterwards. Major J Ronald McCrindle was appointed the managing director and Alan Campbell-Orde, who had been with AT&T, was appointed the operations manager.

The new British Airways became the main competitor for Imperial Airways and the two companies remained in stiff competition with each other for several years. In 1938 the government established the Cadman Committee of Inquiry to investigate the best way to develop British civil aviation and their report recommended the merger of the two company’s operations. The following year Imperial Airways and British Airways were merged to form the state-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

In 1971 BOAC was merged with another state-owned airline, British European Airways (BEA), along with Cardiff-based Cambrian Airways and Newcastle-upon-Tyne based Northeast Airlines, to form the British Airways Board. Three years later all four companies were dissolved and merged into one state-owned business. In February 1987 British Airways was privatized by the Conservative government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

For more information on Frederick Handley Page and other British aviation heroes and landmarks take a look at Heroes and Landmarks of British Aviation by Richard and Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback, priced at £19.99. The ISBN reference number is 9781848846456. Click here to order your copy.