If you want to know where you are going it helps to know where you came from.
British Airways has its own Heritage Centre at its London Heathrow headquarters at Waterside. Anyone can visit, but you have to contact them to arrange it. It’s called the Speedbird Centre.
One of the best exhibits is your guide, Keith Hayward.
He’s just one of the volunteer guides, and is a little piece of aviation history himself having started out with British Airways in 1945 as a traffic apprentice, and retired in 1989 from his job as Senior Passenger Manager Terminal 1.
Keith can tell you about the fleet as it was from the ‘Forties through to now, the personalities, the uniforms, the artifacts from the days of Imperial Airways, BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation, the long-haul wing) and BEA (British European Airways, AKA Back Every Afternoon). And the photographs and archive material go back all the way to the first Air Transport and Travel daily scheduled flights to Paris in 1919.
As a matter of fact I used to work as cabin crew for BEA in 1969 and 1970, and got my Private Pilot License at the Airways Flying Club (Booker) before I joined the RAF to train as a pilot, so I reckon I qualify as a BA Heritage exhibit like Keith. But the only artefacts I still have from those days when you could smoke in aeroplane cabins (I was on Tridents) are these two books of matches – the red for Tourist Class and the gold for First Class (Club Class wasn’t invented until the early 1980s)
So that’s a tiny taste of BA’s heritage, but my actual excuse for visiting the airline’s Waterside HQ for that day was to update my knowledge of how a modern airline operations department works. Admittedly I had done that with Ryanair recently, but although Ryanair’s fleet is far more numerous than BA’s, it runs a single-type fleet on short-haul only, and normally all its crews go home every night.
BA’s ops staff have to deal with nearly 300 aircraft of seven different basic types, both short and long haul, and within those type groups there are multiple cabin configurations and – sometimes – different engine fits. This year it has inducted two new types – the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 – into its fleet.
BA’s main ops room, according to today’s duty Network Ops Manager Rob Rayment, is a big gathering of people whose common characteristic is the ability to solve problems. It takes just the smallest twitch of the weather somewhere in the world, or pilots and cabin crew reporting sick, or an unexpected component failure on an aircraft, for the carefully choreographed system to start tumbling like a row of dominoes unless a way can be found to arrest it. That’s their job.
It’s like playing chess, but instead of kings, queens, knights etc, the pieces are aeroplanes with their maintenance schedules, pilot with their rosters and duty times, cabin crew likewise, airports with curfews, notams and changing weather forecasts, down-route accommodation for crew, passenger management – especially in the case of delay or cancellation, onboard medical emergencies, cargo management, aircraft weight and balance, dispatch coordination, and diversion.
There are 3,500 pilots flying 800 departures a day carrying about 100,000 passengers looked after by 15,000 cabin crew. Quite a chess game.
As Rob says, ops is the heart of the airline, a place where “what you do matters”. Or what you don’t do.