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Flying's Golden Age

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

An extract from BOAC and the Golden Age of Flying

‘The journey not the arrival matters.’

― Leonard Woolf, 1969

In 1963 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the most famous couple in the world. Their love affair, which had become public during the filming of Cleopatra, caught society’s imagination as no other romance would until Charles married Diana in 1981. Taylor and Burton would not finally be able to wed until 1964 as each needed time to divorce their previous spouses. In the interim, Cleopatra, which had taken four years to complete and endured massive cost overruns, would become a huge box office success. Shortly after it was released and at the very peak of their fame, the lovers would make one more film together before taking a two-year break.

The VIPs, written by Terrence Rattigan and directed by Anthony Asquith, cleverly mirrored the lives of its stars. Elizabeth Taylor played a famous model attempting to leave her husband for her lover, and Richard Burton played her millionaire husband. With an all-star cast and a huge budget, the producer and director needed a suitably glamorous location. In a different era, such a film might have been set on the Côte d'Azur or in a Venetian Palazzo, but in the early 1960s the public’s view of glamour was altogether different. The VIPs was set almost entirely in what is now the departure lounge of Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport! Most of the filming was actually done at the MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood where a huge replica of Terminal 3 had been constructed. At the time it was the largest film set ever built in the UK.

Today, in an era of low-cost travel, strict airport security, and hideously crowded terminals, such a location would rarely be used for anything but a crime drama or a gritty fly-on-the-wall documentary. But in a decade when barely one per cent of the world’s population had ever flown, airports were thought to be the epitome of sophistication. This was the same decade that coined the term 'Jet Set' to replace what had formerly been known as 'Café Society.' In the West End of London, the play Boeing Boeing, a comedy based on the tangled love life of a bachelor who is simultaneously dating three stewardesses, filled theatres for seven years. At the beginning of the sixties Federico Fellini’s style-setting movie La Dolce Vita had featured long lingering shots of jets and their passengers coming and going from Rome's Ciampino airport.

Virtually all of the passengers depicted in The VIPs are wealthy and glamorous but the only other thing they have in common is that they are booked aboard the same flight to New York. The BOAC Boeing 707, surrounded by dense, swirling fog, remains stubbornly on the ground but still manages to look seductive. The 707 was designed to be sleek and sexy, in marked contrast to the lumpy, functional looking planes we travel on today. It had neat, square windows, clean swept lines and its high frequency radio aerials had been cleverly crafted to extend like spears from the tail and wing. Its name even chimed with 007, the coded soubriquet of James Bond. Boeing’s stylish design paid off, the 707 outsold its prosaic rival, the DC8, by a wide margin.

The VIPs’ drama revolves around the problems, financial and emotional, that will be created in the lives of the passengers by their delayed departure. Throughout the film uniformed BOAC staff interact with the passengers, BOAC signs are everywhere, and the camera regularly cuts to a misty shot of the airplane. The publicity value for BOAC must have been immense: the unmistakable message of the movie was that jets, especially BOAC jets, are the way that glamorous people travel.

BOAC itself, throughout its relatively short history (1940-1974) had used its advertising and publicity to exploit the idea that air travel was for the elite. As a wholly state-owned organisation, they were obliged to do two things: the first was to ‘fly the flag’ for Britain across her far-flung but diminishing empire, and the second was to act as a proving ground for the products of the British aircraft industry. Both these obligations weighed heavily on profits and the corporation often lost money as a result.

In the early 1960s BOAC had tried to cancel an order for the British-built Vickers VC10, preferring to operate an all 707 fleet. Their logic was simple, the 707 consumed less fuel per passenger and would therefore be more profitable. Cancellation of the entire BOAC order would have spelled doom for the VC10, if not the entire British Aircraft Corporation which Vickers and several other aircraft manufacturers had recently been merged into. The airline came under considerable pressure from a government which considered the VC10 project to be vital to the national interest. In the end, a classic British compromise was reached: BOAC would reduce its order and operate a combined fleet of 707s and VC10s in roughly equal numbers.

BOAC’s advertising department, along with their advertising agents, Foote, Cone & Belding, went to work on selling the new aircraft to passengers. It was no small challenge: the 707, which the press had nicknamed ‘Queen of the Skies,’ had already gained considerable passenger appeal. BOAC, however, was aided by two things: the first was that the rear-engined VC10 gave passengers a quieter and smoother ride (particularly in first class), and the second was that the new British plane was utterly beautiful. In contrast to the more angular 707, she had gorgeous curves and an especially graceful tail. In fact, there was almost no direction from which you could view her and not be impressed. Along with the Spitfire and Concorde, the VC10 became a design icon which has rarely been equalled.

A clever media campaign had worked. Passengers fell in love with the distinctive new British jet and insisted on flying on her, even if it meant delaying their departure. Before long, BOAC found that the iconic VC10 was actually making more money for them than the 707! In a glamorous age a glamorous plane had won out over basic economics.

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