Saturday, 6 April 2013

British Airways' high life

Simon Calder starts his column in today's Independent:

Forty years ago this week, passengers on British European Airways (BEA) perusing the seat pocket in front of them found a novel addition. Alongside the emergency instruction card and sick bag was the first edition of High Life. 

(There is more coverage here.) The magazine's first editor was Bill Davis, who celebrated his 80th birthday a month ago. That was enough to damn it in Private Eye. Davis had been an editor of Punch who saw turning it into a life-style magazine as a way of restoring its fortunes. The young Turks of Greek Street were already dismissive of Punch as a self-satisfied shadow of its former radical and satirical self. The appointment of a German (Davis was born in Hannover as G√ľnther [something - I can't remember his original surname, which seems to have been expunged from the Web]) was the final straw. When "Kaiser Bill", as the Eye renamed him, started High Life, funded largely by tobacco and booze advertising, the reaction of the near-Puritan editor Richard Ingrams may be imagined.

At least High Life survives. It was about the only feature of BEA that did. I remember BEA as a well-run, profit-making public enterprise. I also remember British Overseas Airways Corporation as an overblown corporation whose losses were tolerated by successive governments only because it was the national flag-carrier outwith continental Europe. BEA and Univac had constructed BEACON (described here in a 9-page pdf), an online reservation system of a type which is familiar today but was then state-of-the-art. BOAC and IBM had the troubled BOADICEA system - late, over-budget and temperamental.

When the Edwards Committee proposal to re-merge BOAC and BEA (BEA had originally been hived off by the Attlee government in 1946) was accepted by Heath's Conservatives in 1972, it was implemented as a takeover of BEA by BOAC to form British Airways. BOADICEA became the reservation system of choice and BEACON was relegated to cargo duties. Gresham's Law of systems ruled.

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