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Imperial Airways

The launch of Britain’s National Airline

London Croydon to Paris Le Bourget quickly became the world’s busiest air route. Competition was fierce and British airlines found it very difficult to compete against the heavily subsidised continental airlines. Aircraft, Transport & Travel Limited was the first casualty from the subsidised competition and went into liquidation on 28th February 1921. The British airlines were facing fierce competition from the heavily subsidised European competitors. As winter approached the three UK airlines that operated from Croydon found it increasingly difficult to compete. In December Aircraft, Transport and Travel limited suspend operations and by 21st February 1921 the other two British airlines, Handley-Page Transport and Instone Air Line also suspended operations.

The suspension of British air services was a serious matter for the government. In response, the then Secretary of State for Air, Sir Winston Churchill,  established the “Cross Channel Subsidies Committee” to assess and respond to the issue. A scheme of financial assistance was put in place and on 21st March 1921 the two British airlines recommenced operations. The financial viability of the new transport industry continued to be an issue over the next two years which led to the government establishing the Hambling Committee. In 1923, the Hambling Committee recommended that all four British airlines be merged into one company to develop Britain’s air services. The British Marine Navigation Company Limited, the fourth British airline, was formed in 1923 and offered flying boat services from Woolston, Southampton to the Channel Islands. The result was the formation of Imperial Airways Limited which came into being on 31st March 1924 with it’s base of operations at London Terminal Aerodrome, Croydon. The first day of operations were planned for the next day but, due to a dispute with the pilots over remuneration, all operations were cancelled until 26th April 1924 when the first London Croydon- Paris Le Bourget service was flown.

Until the outbreak of World War Two halted commercial flying, Imperial Airways would be at the forefront of driving innovation and developing intercontinental air travel. It worked closely with aircraft manufacturers to develop safe, reliable and comfortable airliners. The Handley Page H.P.42, in service from 1931, was the result of a specification from Imperial Airways for a four-engined, long range, luxury passenger airliner. The world’s largest bi-plane airliner ever built, it was also one of the safest, having an untarnished safety record in commercial service.

Imperial Airways was the government’s “chosen instrument” to connect Britain with it’s extensive overseas interests. Privately owned but government sponsored, Imperial Airways grew an extensive network of international routes across the globe that originated from the London Croydon Airport. The routes grew steadily year by year, reaching through Europe, India, Africa, the Middle East and onto the Far East and finally Australia. In 1934 Imperial Airways established the world’s longest air route from London Croydon to Brisbane Australia. The international air routes developed from the London Airport are some of the world’s longest established air routes- with some now over ninety years old.

Government policy at the time was to fund only one national airline and give it the monopoly over developing international air routes. Britain’s international airline was based at Britain’s only major international airport at Croydon. This saw the vast majority of government resources to develop commercial air transport pour into this one airport. This quirk of former government policy focussed a multitude of historic events in one place and Croydon Airport is now a significant part of Britain’s heritage.

Imperial Airways was the forerunner of today’s British Airways.