At 06.00 on April 4, 1984, a Birmingham Executive Airways flight took off from the new Birmingham International Airport (BHX), bound for Copenhagen. The departure was a milestone for both the fledgling airline and the brand new facility, which had transferred operations from the old Elmdon terminal the previous night.
Over the next 20 years, throughout various mergers and takeovers, management and dedicated employees tried desperately to make a success of the various airlines. But when Duo Airways closed its doors in 2003, it marked the end of a long line of carriers who had once had their main base at the Midlands airport.
In January 1983, former British Midland Airways Captain, Trefor Jones, watched in dismay as British Airways (BA) began cutting routes from BHX, routes they deemed unprofitable. Jones came up with the idea for a regional, business-orientated airline to take over some of the suspended services.
With the help of the West Midlands County Council, initial operations began in early June 1983, with two 12-seater British Aerospace Jetstream 31s (G-OBEA and G-CBEA). Initially, flights were launched to Zurich and Copenhagen, followed by Milan (LIN) in October, when a third J31 (G-WMCC) joined the fleet.
During the initial application for route licences, a deal was struck with British Airways to operate several services on their behalf. Starting a franchise that would run throughout the airlines various incarnations, flights to Inverness carrying the BA flight number began on June 6, 1983.
As the airline expanded, including a new route to Geneva in April 1984, so did its fleet. More J31s were sourced, but an aircraft with a greater capacity was needed. This came in the form of a brand new, 27-seat Saab-Fairchild SF340. Ordered directly from the manufacturer, Birmingham Executive became the launch customer for the type in the UK.
An order for a second aircraft was subsequently cancelled after the first (G-BSFI) was dogged with technical problems. Flight cancellations, poor on-time performance and the rapid loss of passenger goodwill meant that the financial agreement for the first machine was also terminated in December 1985.
In the lead up to the privatisation of BA, grants were given to regional airlines to start competitive services. Birmingham Executive was one of several recipients of this windfall, and as a result, new routes to Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf and Frankfurt began in 1986. A fourth J31 was leased (G-BKTN), but additional capacity was still required.
Management looked to America and the 24-seat Grumman Gulfstream G-1. In April 1986, the first aircraft – N802CC – arrived, making the airline the first UK operator of the type once again, and was put into service on busier sectors such as Milan, Copenhagen and Stuttgart. A total of four G-1s were ordered, with the initial aircraft (now re-registered as G-BNKO), G-BMOW and G-BNKN, all operating passenger services, while the fourth G-BOBC was used as a backup and for spares.
Although capacity was increasing, some routes were under-performing, and in December 1987, Geneva was axed from the network. A further grant was issued in 1988 to launch a new route to Oslo (OSL). But by October that year, despite financial assistance, it too was axed due to poor passenger loads.
One of the airline’s key features was its focus on providing a high level of service and cuisine, aimed primarily at the business passenger. Aircraft cabins were laid out to provide maximum comfort, and even on the small G-1s, two cabin crew were carried to tend to passenger’s needs.
Feedback was extremely positive, but load factors and yield continued to suffer, especially on routes where the airline came up against competition from legacy carriers such as Lufthansa and Swissair. Their larger jets and quicker flight times often seemed a much better proposition than Executive’s smaller propeller aircraft. This, coupled with the impact of the poor performance of the SF340 in 1985, had a severe knock-on effect on the companies outlook, and the airline was in dire need of financial help.
With British Airways having already invested in the company and it operating a number of their routes from BHX, it was no surprise when in December 1988, Birmingham Executive Airways was taken over by The Plimsoll Line (TPL) for £1.92 million. TPL was a holding company for Brymon Airways and Plymouth Airport, in which BA and Denmark based AP Moller-Maersk group (owner of Maersk Air Denmark) both held a 40% stake.
Initially, the airline continued to operate under the Birmingham Executive banner. But plans by the new management team were underway for a complete re-branding. In August 1989, led by Managing Director Jørn Eriksen, Birmingham European Airways (BEA) was born, the name change signalling the carriers continued expansion across Europe.
A striking new colour scheme adorned the fleet, designed by N&N of London, who had helped create the iconic liveries of Emirates, Caledonian and the early British Airways. In January 1990, five hush-kitted British Aircraft Corporation BAC 1-11-400s were added from BA, along with two Fokker 50s from Danish sister company Maersk Air. The 74-seat jets were refurbished and laid out in a two-class configuration, with the business cabin offering a generous 33” legroom.
Part of the airline’s new strategy was to attract more leisure traffic. Speaking during the re-launch, General Sales and Marketing Manager, John Melchior said: “With the increased capacity and a two-class aircraft, we do have the opportunity to involve tour operators in our programme and to offer economy price travel for those who can book earlier and don’t need the flexibility of a business class ticket”.
The expansion was initially a success, and a campaign to nearly double passenger numbers began. Twice daily flights to Belfast International were launched during the summer 1990 season, and this was followed by daily flights to Gothenburg and Stockholm, while Oslo also returned to the schedule.
As the BAC 1-11s settled into life with Birmingham European, the J31s and G-1s were slowly phased out. A suitable replacement was required to expand domestic services and feed its international routes from BHX. The Canadian built Bombardier Dash-8 was an immediate front runner, as its TPL partner, Brymon, already operated the type. But an order was never forthcoming.
The carrier also planned some diversification of its network after purchasing three former British Caledonian route licenses from London Gatwick in 1990. Flights to Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm were scheduled, but as the airline’s financial situation failed to improve, the new services were never adopted.
Birmingham Airport Expansion
Developments at Birmingham International Airport also continued apace. Airport management wanted to expand its operation as a UK regional ‘hub’ during the early nineties. British Airways was also keen to develop this status, and with their support, work began on a new £60 million second terminal dubbed ‘Eurohub’.
The state-of-the-art facility opened on July 26 1991, with BA and its partners Brymon and Birmingham European moving their services across from Terminal one. The plan was that seamless connections could be made through Eurohub on flights across Europe, giving passengers more options without travelling to London.
The move also allowed the airlines to synergise their networks. Rather than competing, BA pulled off the Amsterdam route in favour of BEA increasing their schedule. Meanwhile, the Midland-based carriers new route to Belfast allowed it to take up some of the lost frequency after BA reduced their flights to Northern Ireland.
Despite a positive outlook and expanding network, financial success for the airline was never forthcoming. Management at TPL were desperate to turn the ailing airline’s fortune around and decided to combine its operation with their Plymouth based carrier, Brymon Airways.
A Short Lived Merger
Officially announced in May 1992, scheduled operations of the newly merged, Brymon European Airways began on October 25, 1992.
A striking new blue and yellow livery was applied to Birmingham European’s five 1-11s and sole J31 and Brymon’s fleet of Dash -7 and -8s. The carrier now had three bases: Birmingham, Plymouth and Bristol, and the plan was to combine the two carriers former networks to develop a broader and more powerful airline. Head office functions were split between Brymon European House in Birmingham and the former Brymon offices at Plymouth Airport.
The existing franchise agreement with British Airways continued and in Spring of 1993, new routes were launched between Bristol and Frankfurt and Newcastle to Paris (CDG).
However, the Brymon European Airways name did not grace the skies for long. On August 1, 1993 it was announced that the airline was to be disbanded. BA purchased the original Brymon assets, turning this into a wholly-owned subsidiary, while the AP Moller-Maersk Group brought the BEA share.
The Maersk Years
Following the de-merger and yet another name change to Maersk Air UK, co-operation was stepped up with British Airways, announced in August 1993 that the new airline would operate under a full franchise. The famous ‘Landor’ colour scheme was applied to the fleet, cabin staff wore BA uniforms, delivered the same onboard service, and frequent flyer programmes were combined.
Three BAC 1-11-500’s (G-AWYR, G-AWYS and G-AWMV) were added from its partner to replace some of the older -400 models. However, the fuel-thirsty jets were both costly and would soon fail to meet strict new noise regulations being introduced. So in 1996, the Danish owners decided to invest £250 million to expand its operations and replace the ageing aircraft. Three Boeing 737-500s were leased from the Danish parent company in late 1996, with a fourth arriving in February 1998.
The carrier now looked to regional jet manufacturers Embraer and Bombardier for its second phase of modernisation. In early 1998, management signed an agreement for up to 15 Bombardier CRJs, with options on a further 12.
Split between the 48-seat 200 and 68-seat 700 series, the order would allow expansion to its existing network and the yet unserved Mediterranean market. The first 200-series (G-MSKK) arrived in the second quarter of 1998, followed by four more examples by the end of the year.
In November 1999, more routes were added, including a six-weekly service to Rome (FCO). Further CRJs joined, with Maersk UK becoming the UK launch customer for the larger -700 series. The airline now offered 370 flights across Europe per week from its Birmingham base and operated a fleet of ten CRJ-200 and five -700s; plus four 737-500s and a single Jetstream 41 (G-MSKJ).
In early 2001, doubts were raised over the long-standing franchise with British Airways. Some of the more profitable routes built up by Maersk were slowly being taken over by BA Regional, including flights to Rome, which transferred operations to an Airbus A319 in March that year. One time partner Brymon had also launched several competitive services from the Midlands airport.
Then came the atrocities of 9/11. The aviation world changed forever, and airlines were hit hard, including both of AP-Mollers, UK and Danish airlines. New routes, which were hoped would return a profit, were added including a thrice-weekly service to Athens in September 2002, while under-performing flights were axed.
Unfortunately it was not enough and in February 2003 it was announced that the airlines Danish owner would be putting Maersk Air UK up for sale.
The Final Chapter
A month later, the carrier’s assets were purchased in a management and employee buyout. The final chapter in the long line of Birmingham’s airlines had begun, and in May 2003, Duo Airways rose from Maesrks’ ashes, with a fleet of three CRJ200s and five CRJ700s.
With new ownership, came a new outlook. The British Airways franchise was first on the agenda and by the end of the summer 2003 timetable, the agreement was terminated. Duo was on its own.
During this time, management looked at other airports outside of Birmingham to expand its UK presence. With some financial assistance from the Scottish Executive fund, Duo opened a second base in Edinburgh in mid-2003. Four routes were operated initially, with Geneva and Milan (MXP) served daily, while Zurich and Oslo were flown six times per week. Further expansion was also planned, and rumours were rife of a new base in easyJet territory, London Luton Airport.
Although passenger loads were slow to reach expected levels, reactions to the fledgling airline were fantastic, and the carrier won several awards, including the Sunday Times ‘Best New Airline’ in 2003. Like its previous incarnations, Duo had continued with a high level of onboard service. But in a post-9/11 world of rapidly expanding low-cost, no-frills airlines, Duo struggled to explain to the public that it was not just another easyJet or Ryanair.
On May 1, 2003 Duo Airways unexpectedly ceased operations, after a backer withdrew funding. Over a thousand passengers were stranded across Europe and its 300 strong workforce were out of a job.
Trefor Jones’ dream and the long history, spanning over twenty years, of airlines based at Birmingham Airport was over.
The Next Chapter?
In 2006 it was revealed that a team in Birmingham lead by Operations Director Andrew Jones, had been exploring the possibility of re-launching a business orientated airline.
I spoke to Andrew a few years ago who told me that they still very much intend to launch the ‘new’ Birmingham European Airways, once necessary funding becomes available: “We fully believe that there exists opportunities from Birmingham for a business orientated airline. We have spent considerable time, effort and funds in trying to attract funding and will continue to do so”.
One of the biggest problems the start-up faces, is the sourcing of a suitable sized aircraft to build up passenger numbers, on the thinner routes which it intends to operate.
Jones stated “Our bottom line is that we will not start scheduled services until we have a fully funded business in place and we are exploring other business opportunities as they arise”.
Time will tell whether or not the Birmingham European Airways name will ever grace the skies over Birmingham again.
I for one would love to see it happen.
N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross