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Air UK was a wholly privately owned, Independent regional British airline formed in 1980 as a result of a merger involving four rival UK-based regional airlines. British and Commonwealth (B&C)-owned British Island Airways (BIA) and Norwich Union-owned Air Anglia were the two dominant merger partners. The merged entity‘s corporate headquarters as well as its main operational and engineering base were originally located at Norwich Airport, Air Anglia’s former HQ as well as that airline’s main operational and engineering base. Initially, there also used to be a second maintenance base at Blackpool Airport, the old BIA engineering base. This was closed down following Air UK’s major retrenchment during Britain‘s severe recession of the early 1980s. In 1987 Air UK established Air UK Leisure as a wholly owned charter subsidiary.
Air UK had been a full IATA member since its inception.
Air UK originally was a wholly owned subsidiary of B&C. Following the beginning of the EU‘s gradual liberalisation of its internal air transport market in 1987, Dutch flag carrier KLM, a long-standing business partner of Air UK and its predecessor Air Anglia, acquired a 14.9% minority stake in Air UK. In 1995, KLM increased its minority stake in Air UK to 45%. (As a consequence of B&C’s bankruptcy during the early 1990s recession, British Air Transport Holdings had become Air UK’s new majority owner.) In 1999 KLM became Air UK’s sole shareholder when it bought out British Air Transport Holdings. The following year Air UK was renamed KLMuk.
Air UK operated the following aircraft types at one point or another during its 19-year existence:
- Avion de Transport Regional (ATR) ATR-72 (these aircraft were exclusively operated by KLMuk)
- BAC One-Eleven 400 series
Aerospace BAe 146 100/200/300 series
- Fokker F-27 “Friendship” 100/200/400/500/600 series
- Fokker F-28 “Fellowship” 1000/4000 series
- Fokker F-50
- Fokker F-100
Page Dart Herald
- Shorts 330
- Shorts 360
Air UK was the name of the new airline resulting from the merger of BIA and Air Anglia as well as Air Wales and Air Westward.
It started trading on January 16, 1980. At the time of its inception it was the largest regional, scheduled airline in the UK. It had a staff of 1,700, carried well over of 1m, mainly scheduled, passengers annually and its fleet numbered 40 aircraft, consisting of six jets (comprising four ex-BIA BAC One-Eleven 400s and two ex-Air Anglia Fokker F-28 4000 series “Fellowships”) and 34 turboprops (including eighteen ex-BIA Handley Page Dart Heralds, ten ex-Air Anglia Fokker F-27 100/200 series “Friendships” as well as six Embraer 110 “Bandeirantes” that originally formed part of the Air Wales and Air Westward fleets). Apart from the four One-Eleven 400s, which were exclusively operating charter flights, all other aircraft were part of Air UK’s scheduled service fleet.
Peter Villa, the former BIA managing director (MD) became Air UK’s first MD as well.
At the time of its creation Air UK was sometimes referred to as the unofficial “Third Force” among the main contemporary scheduled airlines in the UK (British Caledonian Airways (BCal) being the UK’s official “Second Force” and British Airways (BA) the primary UK flag carrier at that time).
Following the merger, most of the fleet progressively adopted Air UK’s new blue, white and red colour scheme. Originally,
this featured a predominantly blue fuselage, except for a white-red-white stripe across the windows as well as a white roof. The tail was predominantly blue as well, apart from the “Air UK” logo itself. However, the CAA disapproved of this predominantly blue livery, arguing that it could potentially pose a safety hazard for other aircraft as it made it difficult for other crews to spot the blue planes in a blue sky. To address the CAA’s safety concerns, Air UK decided to amend its original colour scheme by opting for a hybrid blue-and-white scheme featuring a blue fuselage and a white tail. (The original blue scheme, including both a predominantly blue fuselage as well as a predominantly blue tail, had been applied to only one of the BAC One Elevens.)
Air UK’s scheduled route network initially served the following 34 points in the British Isles and Continental Europe: Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Basle, Belfast, Bergen, Birmingham, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brussels, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Guernsey, Humberside, Isle of Man, Jersey, Leeds/Bradford, Le Touquet, London Gatwick, London Stansted, Manchester, Newcastle, Newquay, Norwich, Ostend, Paris, Rotterdam, Southampton, Southend, Stavanger, Swansea and Teeside.
Following British Airways’ decision to retire its Vickers Viscount turboprop fleet and to withdraw from its chronically loss-making regional scheduled routes, Air UK assumed the UK flag carrier’s regional routes from Heathrow to Guernsey as well as from Leeds to Belfast, Dublin and Jersey in April 1980. Air UK’s new, year-round Heathrow-Guernsey route was the airline’s first scheduled route serving London‘s premier airport. (During the early 1980s, in the days prior to the M11, Air UK launched a second, year-round scheduled service linking Heathrow with the company’s base in Norwich.)
At that time Air UK also began a year-round scheduled operation between London Gatwick and Leeds.
The severe recession of the early 1980s necessitated a major retrenchment, resulting in extensive route cutbacks. These
included the suspension of all seasonal scheduled routes and the closure of the entire Southend operation inherited from BIA, the
suspension of the Norwich-Birmingham-Swansea-Newquay “cross-country” route and the closure of the entire Stansted operation inherited from Air Anglia as well as the withdrawal of some of the recently launched routes from Leeds from the start of the 1980-1981 winter timetable period. The airline’s retrenchment at that time also led to the closure of the former BIA engineering base at Blackpool as well as the withdrawal and subsequent disposal of all F-28s, Heralds and “Bandeirantes”. In addition, almost half of the workforce were made redundant, equating to 800 job losses.
Reorganisation and renewed expansion
In 1982 Peter Villa decided to reconstitute BIA as a charter-only airline, as a result of which he left Air UK along with the four BAC One-Eleven 400s. During that year the CAA transferred Air UK’s Gatwick-Guernsey licence to Guernsey Airlines, a newly formed regional operator, following numerous passenger complaints about the service Air UK had been providing ever since it had assumed the former BIA operation on that route. That year also saw Air UK joining forces with British Midland to form Manx Airlines, a new, jointly owned regional subsidiary based on the Isle of Man. Air UK owned 25% of Manx Airlines, making it the new joint venture’s junior partner. (British Midland, which owned the remaining 75%, was the senior partner.) Air UK and British Midland hoped that transferring their loss-making Isle of Man operations to a dedicated, lower cost subsidiary would eventually make these services profitable.
At the start of the 1984 summer timetable period Air UK took over British Caledonian’s
regional operation between Glasgow, Newcastle and Amsterdam, thereby further strengthening its position as the UK’s leading regional feeder operator at Amsterdam Schiphol and as the airport’s largest foreign scheduled carrier.
By 1985 Air UK acquired a number of Shorts 330 commuter turboprop planes as well as additional Fokker F-27s. These included the first “stretched” 500 series F-27s featuring an increased seating capacity of 52 (as opposed to 44 for all shorter fuselage F-27 models). To further support its ongoing expansion, Air UK temporarily leased an F-28 1000 series as well as two BIA One Eleven 400s during that period. (All of these aircraft wore different, white-based colour schemes.) These additional aircraft enabled the relaunch of several year-round, domestic and international scheduled services from Stansted.
During the second half of the 1980s Air UK added several, larger Shorts 360 commuter turboprops to its expanding fleet.
In 1987 Air UK placed its first order for BAe‘s new 146 regional jetliner.
The introduction of Air UK’s first 146 200 series regional jet coincided with the introduction of a new livery, consisting of
a white fuselage and tail with three different blue cheatlines merging into a stylised Union Flag on the aircraft’s tail. In
addition, this livery differed from the previous one by dropping the gap between the words “Air” and “UK” while inserting a gap between the letters “U” and “K” in “UK”.
Following British Airways’ takeover of British Caledonian in December 1987, the CAA awarded Air UK the licences for the ex-BCal domestic feeder routes from Gatwick to Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1988. This resulted in an order for the larger BAe 146-300 to enable the launch of high-frequency services with up to seven daily round-trips on both routes from the start of the 1988-1989 winter timetable period.
By 1994, Air UK acquired several, new Fokker F-100 jet aircraft. The introduction of these aircraft led to the adoption of another new livery, the final livery in the airline’s 19-year history. This livery combined elements of the earlier livery with a new, single dark blue cheatline that included a thin, pale blue stripe merging into a dark blue tail featuring the previous Union Flag logo. It also combined elements of both previous liveries by dropping the gap between the “U” and “K” in “UK” (as in Air UK’s original blue livery)
as well as dropping the gap between the words “Air” and “UK” (as in the airline’s second livery).
By 1995 Air UK had replaced all of the older, smaller F-27 100/200/400/600 series aircraft in its fleet with additional, “stretched” F-27-500s. (Air UK operated a total of 22 F-27s of various marks throughout its entire existence, all of which it had acquired second-hand.)
By the late 1990s a fleet of brand-new F-50 and ATR-72 state-of-the-art turboprops replaced the aging F-27-500s. During that period Air UK also retired all of its 146-200s, which had formed the bulk of its 146 fleet, as well as the 146-100s.
Air UK Leisure
In 1987 Air UK established Air UK Leisure as its new, wholly owned charter subsidiary.
Air UK Leisure’s corporate headquarters was located at Air UK’s Stansted base. Its main operational bases were at
London Gatwick and London Stansted, respectively.
In 1993 Air UK Leisure entered the long-haul leisure market trough the acquisition of a pair of Boeing
767 300 ER series widebodied aircraft. Although Air UK Leisure operated these aircraft under the same AOC as its Boeing 737 400 series narrowbodied short-/medium-haul fleet, it adopted
the Leisure International Airways brand for its long-haul operation.
Air UK Leisure was subsequently sold to the tour operator Unijet, which in turn became part of the First Choice group.
Focusing on Stansted
Following the opening of the new Norman Foster-designed terminal at London Stansted Airport in 1991, Air UK decided to shift both its main operational base as well as its corporate headquarters from Norwich to London’s third airport. The airline began building a comprehensive network of short-haul domestic and European feeder routes that was intended to provide connecting traffic for the long-haul carriers that were then expected to commence operations from Stansted, as a result of the increasingly tight slot situation at both London Heathrow as well as London Gatwick, at the time London’s two main gateway/hub airports, especially at peak times. This led to the launch of several new, year-round scheduled routes linking Stansted with important business destinations in the British Isles and on the Continent, including Belfast, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Inverness, Madrid, Milan Linate, Munich and Zurich (in addition to the existing year-round scheduled routes serving Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Brussels, the Channel Islands, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paris). However, the unfavourable economic conditions in the UK at the time, i.e. the severe early 1990s recession and the fallout from the first Gulf War, resulted in a severe contraction of both the business and leisure travel markets. This in turn resulted in the spectacular collapse of the International Leisure Group (ILG) and its Air Europe airline subsidiary, at the time the largest Independent airline in the UK and Gatwick’s biggest user, accounting for one-fifth of all the airport’s slots. The then prevailing harsh economic climate also resulted in route and schedule cutbacks at other major airlines operating out of both main London airports. As a result, it became much easier to obtain viable slots at these airports, including at peak times. This meant that none of the contemporary major long-haul carriers were showing any interest in commencing operations at Stansted (with the sole exception of American Airlines, which ran a short-lived Stansted-Chicago service during the early 1990s). In addition, Stansted’s considerably smaller catchment area and its greater distance from most parts of London compared with Heathrow and Gatwick, combined with poorer transport links in relation to Heathrow’s and Gatwick’s better accessibility, meant that Air UK found it extremely difficult to make its Stansted operation viable.
In April 1999 KLM became the sole owner of Air UK. This resulted in the airline being rebranded as KLMuk, including the adoption of a brand-new livery. Initially, the rebranded airline launched new routes from London City serving KLM’s Amsterdam Schiphol hub as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, eventually, the KLMuk routes that did not serve Amsterdam were either progressively transferred to Buzz, the KLM group’s new low-cost carrier, along with the remaining 146-300 aircraft or closed. KLMuk adopted this new strategy in response to its increasing inability to match the far lower costs of the rapidly growing “no
frills” competition on the main London-Scotland trunk routes, especially Luton-based easyJet and former British Airways subsidiary go based at Stansted itself. This resulted in all scheduled routes serving destinations other than Amsterdam eventually being dropped, thus reducing the network to only 15 routes exclusively linking regional UK airports to Amsterdam Schiphol. It also resulted in the retirement of KLMuk’s ATR-72s.
Incidents and accidents
There were three recorded non-fatal incidents during Air UK’s 19-year existence from 1980 until 1999.
The first of these occurred on June 11, 1984. It involved an empty ex-BIA Handley Page Dart Herald (registration: G-BBXI), which was parked at Bournemouth Airport. A lorry struck the aircraft and damaged it beyond repair.
The second incident occurred on July 19, 1990.
It involved an ex-Air Anglia F-27-200 (registration G-BCDO) in a landing accident at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport at the end of a scheduled flight from London Stansted. The aircraft’s right-hand main gear failed to lock down while preparing to land. This resulted in a forced landing with the right gear retracted, damaging the aircraft beyond repair. There were no injuries among the 17 passengers and four crew members. (The aircraft was subsequently ferried to Air UK’s base at Norwich Airport, where it was withdrawn from service and scrapped.)
The third and final incident occurred on December 7, 1997. It involved an F-27-500F (registration: G-BNCY) in a landing accident at Guernsey Airport at the end of a scheduled service from Southampton. The aircraft overran the runway while landing in high crosswinds and came to rest in an adjacent field with its left landing gear collapsed. There were no injuries among the 50 passengers and four crew. (The aircraft was damaged beyond repair and subsequently written off.)
- IATA Code: UK
- Callsign: ukay
- ^ a b c No Frills – The Truth behind the Low-cost Revolution in the Skies, Calder, S., Virgin Books, London, 2002, p. 145
- ^ No Frills – The Truth behind the Low-cost Revolution in the
Skies, Calder, S., Virgin Books, London, 2002, pp. 166/7
- ^ a b No Frills – The Truth behind the Low-cost Revolution in the Skies, Calder, S., Virgin Books, London, 2002, pp. 139, 144/5
- Flight International. Reed Business
Information. ISSN 0015-3710. (World Airline Directory, 1980-1999)
- Calder, Simon (2002). No Frills – The Truth behind the Low-cost Revolution
in the Skies. Virgin Books. ISBN 1-8522-7932-X.
- Travel Trade Gazette (UK & Ireland Edition). Travel Trade Gazette.
ISSN 0262-4397. (various copies, 1980-1999)