Anyone flying out of or into London Gatwick or Manchester during the 1970s and 1980s may remember British Airtours. This was a charter airline operating Boeing 707, 737, 747, and Lockheed L-1011 Tristar aircraft. The brand existed until 1988 when it became Caledonian Airways. Part of it lived on into Thomas Cook Airlines until 2019.

British Airtours was a major operator of the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. Photo: Rob Hodgkins via Wikimedia

Starting as BEA Airtours

British Airtours started life as BEA Airtours, a charter subsidiary of British European Airways (BEA), in 1969.

The airline offered a way for the government-owned BEA to expand in the growing charter and inclusive tour market. BEA offered scheduled flights, and BEA Airtours offered charter holiday flights. It started service out of Gatwick airport, using a fleet of de Havilland Comet aircraft. These were switched for Boeing 707s in 1971.

The airline was short-lived, as BEA merged with BOAC in 1974 to form British Airways. At this time, the airline was renamed British Airtours and became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the new British Airways.

BEA 707
BEA Airtours started with the Boeing 707, which became British Airtours. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia

subsidiary of British Airways

At the time it became British Airtours in 1974, it operated a fleet of nine Boeing 707 aircraft. Under British Airways, these were later replaced by new 737-200 aircraft (ordered alongside aircraft for the main airline).

It also introduced one new Boeing 747-200 aircraft in 1984. This replaced the last of the Boeing 707s on the airline’s North American routes. These routes, known as Advance Booking Charters (ABC), had started in the mid-1970s as a way to meet demand on US routes not met by schedule airline options.

British Airtours 747
British Airtours owned one 747-200. Photo: Tim Rees via Wikimedia

Fleet expansion and variation continued under British Airways, with a move away from Boeing to Lockheed. The larger Lockheed L-1011 Tristar was introduced in 1981 and operated alongside the Boeing 737, flying to the more popular destinations with higher capacity. It went on to operate 32 Tristars in total – its most operated type, with the Boeing 737 coming next at 29 (data obtained from AeroTransport Data Bank,

Becoming Caledonian Airways

British Airways merged with British Caledonian in 1988. At this time, British Airtours was renamed as Caledonian Airways. It continued to operate as a charter airline and continued the brand of Caledonian, with a modified Caledonian Airways livery with elements from the British Airways’ Landor livery.

Caledonian Airways 737
Caledonian Airways took on the 737s initially. Photo: Ken Fielding via Wikimedia

Fleetwise, it replaced the 737s over time (they moved to British Airways) with further L-1011 Tristar and Boeing 757 aircraft. It also introduced the DC-10 and the Airbus A320.

Caledonian Airways continued until 1995, when British Airways decided to move out of the charter market. It was then sold to the UK tour operator Inspirations.

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Eventually merging into Thomas Cook Airlines

Inspiration continued to operate charter flights from the UK, under the Caledonian brand, as well as Peach Air (which operator flights for the tour operator Goldcrest). It kept the Tristar fleet, but the 757s moved to British Airways,

Inspiration was part of the Carlson Leisure Group. This merged with Thomas Cook in 1999, with the Thomas Cook brand being retained. Thomas Cook’s airline Flying Colours and Inspiration’s airlines were merged to form JMC Air. This was rebranded as Thomas Cook Airlines in 2003.

What Happened To British Airtours?
British Airtours eventually ended up as part of Thomas Cook Airlines. Photo: Getty Images

Under Thomas Cook Airlines, the fleet, destinations, and UK operating bases were significantly expanded. But some of the legacies of British Airtours remained. This continued, of course, until 2019, when the Thomas Cook Group declared bankruptcy and the airline ceased operations.

British Airtours was a significant UK operator until the brand was lost in the 1980s. Do you have any experiences working or traveling with the airline? Let us know more in the comments.