Between A Rock And A Hard Place – GB Airways

The story of GB Airways (GT) begins long before man had even taken to the skies. In 1810, Marcus Henry Bland, an English Shipping Merchant, established a new shipping company in Gibraltar to ply the cargo trade across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers. 

In 1931, following Bland’s death, the company was taken over by the Caggero brothers. At the time, the shipping industry was struggling due to the crippling economic depression. So the brothers looked at diversifying the business, and in September 1931, they acquired their first aircraft, a six-seater A.21 Windhover Amphibian seaplane.

A.21 Windhover Amphibian seaplane ‘General Godley’ (G-ABJP), Gibraltar Airways first aircraft. (Image: Bland Group)

A twice-daily link between Gibraltar and Tangiers began, using the Bland shipyard as its base. The flight took just 15 minutes, becoming the shortest intercontinental flight in the world. Sadly passenger numbers failed to meet expectations, and after the seaplane was severely damaged in a storm, the airline terminated the service after just five months. 

The outbreak of the Second World War put plans to relaunch the carrier on hold. However, the war led to Gibraltar becoming an important Royal Naval base, and the British Overseas Territory was finally provided with its own airfield in 1939. 

Post War Years

When the war ended, Gibraltar Airways formed a close relationship with British European Airways (BE), which took a 49% share in the airline in the winter of 1946. The British carrier transferred across three of its de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapides. They were immediately put to work on the reinstated Tangiers (TNG) service, which, at its peak, operated up to 14 times per day. In 1946 14,000 passengers were carried on the route. 

Gibair DC-3 (G-AMFV) pictured at East Midlands Airport in 1970. (Image: See photo)

Reorganisation for the airline came in 1949 in a bid to cut costs which also saw a rebranding to ‘Gibair’. The Bland Group would deal with the administrative and operational side of the business, while BEA carried out engineering and technical work. Gibair launched numerous new routes to Madrid (MAD), Granada, Seville and Tetuan. However, these were soon dropped due to low passenger numbers. 

But the Tangier route continued to flourish, and two Douglas DC-3s were sourced with BEA’s help to provide extra capacity in 1962. A third example arrived in March 1963. This allowed the airline to launch a midday service to Madrid, linking up with BEA’s service from London. Passenger numbers soared from 60,000 in 1962 to 120,000 in 1964. The DC-3 would remain in service until March 29, 1970 when the last example was retired. During its time with the airline, the venerable DC-3 had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar 10,558 times and had carried 29,021 passengers. 

Vickers Viscount G-BBVH was written off during a landing incident at Tangier’s Airport in November 1988. (Image: Bland Group)

The DC-3 was subsequently replaced by the Vickers Viscount after three of the type were sourced from BEA. The Viscount flew with Gibair until 1989, by which point when traffic on the once lucrative Tangiers route had dropped significantly. A single Britten Norman Trislander 2A Mk.III (G-OCTA) was leased to operate the link from May 1989 to June 1991.

Escalating political tensions with neighbouring Spain, which culminated in the complete closure of its border in 1968, meant that Gibair had been unable to expand its network for many years.

GB Airways Trislander (G-OCTA) later served with Aurigny Air Services of Guernsey. (Image: G B_NZCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

London Bound

Finally, in July 1975, after numerous failed applications to the Air Transport Licensing Board (ALTB), Gibair was able to commence a thrice-weekly service to London Heathrow. Management wanted jet equipment to operate the prestigious new route, but with none of their own in the fleet, several Hawker Siddeley Tridents were leased from BEA.

Wearing the airline’s smart new livery is Vickers Viscount (G-BBVH) seen taxiing at GIB. (Image: John Oram via Flickr)

In the early 1980s, the airline struggled, thanks to the booming UK charter market eroding its passenger numbers and profits. Gibair attempted once again to turn around its fortunes, and management launched an aggressive marketing campaign. This saw the carrier again rebranded, this time as GB Airways (GT), complete with a smart new livery. Management believed the new name would better reflect the airline’s expanding operation and close ties with the UK. 

To further strengthen these ties, the decision was made to move its headquarters to London’s Gatwick Airport (LGW) in January 1989. Based in ‘The Beehive’ LGW’s original terminal building built in 1936, it remained GB’s home for the rest of its existence. 

The Beehive Gatwick. (Image: Bland Group)

Following the move, two Boeing 737-200s were leased from British Airways (BA) in March 1989. The carrier then commenced new services to Manchester and Casablanca from GIB, plus Funchal, Tangier and Casablanca from LGW. 

Eight -200s would be flown by the airline, two of which were given ‘GB Leisure’ titles to operate the growing charter network from various UK airports to Mediterranean sun and ski resorts. By 1991 the airline has become an all 737 operator. This led to the Tangier’s rotation being cut to just a twice-weekly extension of the LGW service before being fully suspended in the late 1990s. 

GB Leisure Boeing 737-200 (G-BECG). (Image: Torsten Maiwald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

BA Franchise

After nearly 50 years of close cooperation with the UK’s flag-carriers BEA and BA, GB Airways became one of BA’s earliest franchise partners in February 1995. This followed the decision by BA to sell its 49% shareholding in GB back to the Bland Group in 1994. 

All of GB’s flights were given BA flight numbers and marketed by the flag carrier. Aircraft were painted in the iconic Landor colour scheme while its crews wore the new partner’s uniforms, with passengers treated to the same inflight service as BA. 

BA also transferred over two of its 147-seat Boeing 737-400s, and three new routes were launched from LGW to Murcia, Valencia and Malta. 

The airline would go on to operate five 737-400s, most of which were ex-Dan-Air examples such as G-BNNL pictured. (Image: See photo)

The partnership proved a success. GB’s profits grew by 42% in the first year, increasing to 251% in the 1997/1998 season. Passenger numbers also doubled from around 350,000 in 1996 to over 800,000 during 1997. 

In March 1997, the airline ordered two factory-fresh Boeing 737-300s. The 130-seat jets would join the five ex-BA -400s and be used to replace the older -200s. The pair entered service in April 1998 and was later joined by two leased examples. 

The Boeing 737-300s never wore GB Airways colours. (Image: Pedro Aragão, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

“We are delighted to be strengthening our long-standing links with Boeing through this order. We are confident that these new aircraft will serve our airline most effectively into the millennium and beyond,” Joseph J. Gaggero, GB’s Chairman, said at the time.

Airbus Order

However, just a few months after receiving its first -300, the airline announced it would move across to Airbus and replace its 737 fleet with the A320 family aircraft. A firm order for nine jets, with options on a further five, was signed in November 1998. Speaking at the time, the airline said that acquiring the same aircraft type as BA would allow GB Airways to “continue to benefit from centralised engineering and maintenance facilities at Gatwick.”

The airline wore full BA colours plus ‘Operated by GB Airways’ titles on the nose. (Image: Bland Group)

The first 156-seat A320, powered by International Aero V2500-A5 engines, arrived in May 2000, on lease from Singapore Aircraft Leasing Enterprise. In February 2001, GB received the first two, from an order of three, 189-seat A321s. These had initially been A320s but were switched to the larger A321 due to growing demand and slot constraints at LHR, where the airline still had a significant presence.

In 2005 the carrier signed a further order with Airbus for one A320 and four A321s marking ‘the next stage of the airline’s development.’ In total, GB Airways would operate eleven A320s and seven A321s.

A new corporate logo was introduced with the arrival of the Airbus fleet. (Image: GB Airways)

Turbulent Times

The growth of low-cost carriers and the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on air travel impacted GB hard. As a BA franchise partner, the airline was affected by the flag-carriers decision to downsize its LGW operation. 

Previously, GB had planned to take on more of BA’s European network. But CEO John Patterson, who had joined the airline in 1999, was keen to expand its own offering, focusing on longer leisure routes to Morocco, Tunisia and the Canary Islands. He explained in 2002: “Last year we suffered as we felt the full brunt of the low-fare competition. We can’t chase down those low-cost airlines and lower our standards, so we’ll exploit the longer three to four-hour sector routes where passengers expect a good level of service.” 

On September 30, 2004 the airline announced a new base at Manchester Airport. Flights to Spain, the Canary Islands, Madeira, Cyprus and Malta were launched with a single A320. The announcement also coincided with the extension of the franchise agreement with BA until March 2010. 

G-TTOH seen taxiing at Almeria Airport. (Image: Javier Bravo Muñoz (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking at the time, Patterson said: “I am delighted that we will start flights from Manchester. GB Airways has a long established partnership with British Airways, and this new base will not only extend the British Airways network from Manchester but also create around 140 new jobs.”

“The extension of the franchise agreement to 2010 gives passengers and staff the reassurance that GB Airways will continue to offer British Airways services with all the benefits that you would expect from a full-service airline at truly competitive fares. For the first time, customers in the North have a true alternative scheduled service to these popular sunspots.”

However, the increasingly ‘unfit for purpose’ franchise agreement (as described by BA boss Rod Eddington) was creating more issues for GB than benefits. While the airline was responsible for its own network planning, sales and marketing, it had limited commercial freedom, which increasingly impacted its profitability.

New Direction?

In 2006 GB had a new boss, Kevin Hatton, who planned to move the airline in a new direction. He quickly set about driving down costs, beginning with the removal of ‘Club Europe’ seating and introducing a buy-onboard service on all flights from Manchester (MAN).

Shortly after, the Bland Group enlisted the help of London-based Nyras Capital to develop a range of strategic options for the airline. 

GB Airbus A321 (G-TTIF). (Image: Pedro Aragão, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

The company put five options forward. The first was a new “contemporary” business model called ‘Project BOLD.’ As the name suggested, BOLD would have seen the carrier take over all of BA’s short-haul flights at Gatwick with a 30 to 40 aircraft fleet. Despite the plans having the potential to make BA’s loss-making Gatwick operation viable, Project BOLD was rejected by the flag carrier in early 2007.

The second option was to modify the existing franchise agreement, giving the airline more commercial scope to expand its network and take on more of BA’s routes from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester. 

Exiting the franchise altogether and creating a standalone GB Airways or establishing a relationship with another airline were the third and fourth alternatives. The final option was to sell the airline. 

The preferred course of action for the Bland Group was to continue their partnership with BA. But it wasn’t just GB who were unhappy with the franchise. BA boss Willie Walsh had publicly stated numerous times that franchise agreements had “outlived their purpose.”

Despite its close ties with BA, GB Airways was later rejected by the flag carrier. (Image: Jonathan McDonnell via Flickr)

With suggested closer ties with BA being rejected and little hope of the franchise being extended beyond 2010, management knew they had to look at other options to ensure the airline’s long-term future. 

Talks of establishing a new tie-up with another carrier were quickly rejected, and the Bland Group realised that GB Airways would not survive on its own. The only other option now was to try and find a buyer.

easyJet Takeover

Despite being the obvious choice, BA quickly rejected the offer to purchase its long-time partner. Low-cost giant easyJet (U2) then stepped forward, and the Bland Group accepted a £103.5 million bid for GB Airways on October 25, 2007.

This wasn’t the first time GB’s fleet would be painted orange. When easyJet began flying in October 1997, GB had provided the Luton carrier with two wet-leased 737-200s while awaiting its own Air Operators Certificate (AOC).

GB Airways Boeing 737-200 on lease to easyJet in the carriers early days. Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Strategically for easyJet, the acquisition made perfect sense. Overnight the carrier would overtake BA as the number one operator at Gatwick, U2’s biggest base. They would now control 24% of take-off and landing slots, market share would rise from 19% to 27%, and passenger numbers were expected to increase from six to eight million per year across 62 routes.

Speaking at the time, easyJet’s Chief Executive Andy Harrison said: “This is an acquisition which both strengthens our customer offering at London Gatwick, our biggest base with an attractive catchment area and allows us to fully capitalise on the potential of the airport through a larger number of slots.”

The sale also gave easyJet a ready-made base at Manchester with six routes and two A320s aircraft. However, the Heathrow slots, from where GB Airways operated five routes, were not included. 

Pictured at LGW is former GB Airways Airbus A321 G-TTID in a temporary easyJet livery. (Image: Aero Icarus from Zürich, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The sale was completed in January 2008 after UK competition authorities cleared the deal. BA had also agreed to end the franchise agreement early, so on March 29, 2008, the GB Airways name disappeared from British aviation after 77 years.

The airline had played a pivotal role in leisure aviation between the UK, Europe and North Africa and had weathered numerous storms during its existence. At its peak GB Airways was the fourth largest international scheduled airline in the UK, operating 16 Airbus family aircraft and carrying over three million passengers annually to 38 destinations.

N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.

Much of this article appeared in the August 2021 edition of Airliner World.

© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross

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