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BA to celebrate 80 years of Bermuda service

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Eighty years and counting: a British Airways jet descends towards Bermuda’s L.F. Wade International Airport

British Airways is preparing to celebrate 80 years of service to the island next year.

No airline has linked Bermuda to the outside world for longer and according to a senior manager at BA the relationship is only getting stronger.

Colm Lacey, BA’s head of commercial, Gatwick, told The Royal Gazette that passengers on BA’s Bermuda service will disembark at London Gatwick Airport’s South Terminal from January next year, rather than the North Terminal.

And he added that the airline was working with the Bermuda Tourism Authority to serve their mutual interest of boosting visitor numbers to the island.

“From January 4, 2017, the Bermuda service will be flying to and from the South Terminal,” Mr Lacey said. “We will have a new area there and new lounge with a great view of the open runway.

“It will also be more convenient for many of our customers who use public transport as the train station is at the South Terminal.”

He added that the 80th anniversary, coming in the same year as the island hosts the America’s Cup finals, presents great opportunities to attract more visitors from the UK.

“Bermuda is a very important route for Gatwick and for the airline,” Mr Lacey said. “We’re always looking for ways to bring more people in and we’re working closely with the BTA.”

BA and the island’s tourism body looked for joint marketing opportunities, he added.

Asked about cancelled and delayed flights, he said BA had cancelled three flights last year and another one so far in 2016 because of technical faults.

He added that there was “no difference between Bermuda and other routes” in terms of BA’s efforts to maintain a punctual and reliable service, but the airline had worked hard to improve these aspects of the Bermuda service over the past year.

Last November, Shawn Crockwell, who was then the Minister of Tourism, told the House of Assembly that BA had assured the Government it would use a dedicated, modern aircraft for the Bermuda route and since then reliability had improved. Mr Crockwell also said the Government had spoken with other airlines, including Virgin and Thomas Cook, who had expressed interest in establishing another service from Europe.

BA has not had competition from the UK since Zoom folded in 2008, just a year after establishing its London-Bermuda service.

Asked about the prospect of competition, Mr Lacey said: “Competition is good for consumers and good for us, so we would welcome competition. We’re used to competition on our routes and we will continue to innovate and compete by looking to provide the best service for our customers.”

BA invited The Royal Gazette to visit its Speedbird Centre Heritage Collection based at the company’s corporate offices in Harmondsworth just outside London’s Heathrow Airport.

The centre, staffed by retired BA employees, who have seen much of the airline’s storied history, contains models, photographs and documents which take the visitor right from the world’s first scheduled international service in 1919 — on a single-engine DeHavilland DH4A from London to Paris — through to supersonic air travel on Concorde and the ultra-modern lightweight aircraft of today.

One of the enthusiasts who shows visitors around is Keith Hayward, an 87-year-old who has worked with BA in various capacities for more than seven decades and who oozes knowledge and passion for aviation history.

The 80-year association with Bermuda has thrown up a few of the stories featured in the fascinating centre. For example, Imperial Airlines, one of the predecessor companies that evolved into the modern BA, started off the Bermuda service in 1937, with a flying boat called Cavalier — but the route was not to London, rather to New York. London was considered too far from Bermuda for the Cavalier to fly.

For that reason, the aircraft was sent to Bermuda in pieces, on board a ship from England, and assembled on the island.

The Imperial Airlines flight cut the journey time from Bermuda to New York from 40 hours to five hours and first flew on June 12, 1937.

In 1939, Imperial merged with British Overseas Airways Corporation, and three years later, as the Second World War raged, came one of the most famous episodes in BA’s Bermuda history, involving Britain’s Prime Minister of the time, Winston Churchill.

In January 1942, Mr Churchill had visited the US and was on his way back to Britain. He took the BOAC Boeing 314 flying boat Berwick as far as Bermuda and the plan was for him to complete his Atlantic crossing aboard a British ship, which would take about another week.

Mr Hayward takes up the story: “The captain of the Berwick was a man named Kelly Rogers and Churchill asked him why he couldn’t fly from Bermuda to England on the flying boat.

“It was not considered safe to fly that distance over the Atlantic in a flying boat, but Churchill was anxious to get back quickly and he could be very persuasive. He was a difficult man to refuse.”

The Speedbird Centre keeps two remarkable photographs taken that day — one of Mr Churchill at the controls of the aircraft in Bermuda, with trademark fat cigar in mouth. The other shows the celebrated wartime leader in conversation with someone, presumably Captain Rogers.

After the Berwick took off and headed for England, Mr Churchill told Captain Rogers he wanted to send a radio message to England to inform the British people that he would be back in London shortly. This was where Captain Rogers overruled his ultimate boss on the grounds that German ears would inevitably be listening in. “Your voice is far too recognisable, sir,” he told the Prime Minister. “It would not be safe.”

The details are in Captain Rogers’ log of this, the first transatlantic flight made by a British Prime Minister, stored in a glass case at the museum.

BA also showed The Royal Gazette around the place where its modern-day pilots and cabin crew are trained, the BA Global Learning Academy at Vanguard House, near Hatton Cross, just outside Heathrow.

Inside are cabins where crew are schooled and tested on matters of safety and service, and huge chutes that would be the escape route from a stricken aircraft in the case of an emergency. There is also an impressive array of flight simulators, 16 of them worth about £10 million ($13 million) apiece, where pilots are rigorously trained and put through all sorts of scenarios, including lost engines, wild weather and extraordinarily difficult places to land, before they are cleared to take the controls of an aircraft full of passengers.

Andy Clubb, corporate and media manager for British Airways Flight Training, invited this journalist to take the controls of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet simulator. The experience of flying over London, with landmarks like Wembley Stadium clearly visible, is astonishingly realistic.

Taking off is relatively easy, landing a much more complicated affair. The graphics and hydraulics on the simulator combine to make the experience so true to life that the heart of a first-time “pilot” is sure to be racing as the runway gets closer. One can feel the sheer size of the aircraft and the experience inspires admiration for the professional pilots who deal with the responsibility of landing an aircraft packed with hundreds of passengers and crew, day in, day out.

These days, BA does not only sell flight tickets. Customers buying online are increasingly booking a hotel, hiring a car, or even buying tickets to tourist destinations at the same time.

For example, a visitor booking a flight to Bermuda with BA can also book one of ten available hotels through the website: the Fairmont Southampton, the Hamilton Princess, Grotto Bay, Cambridge Beaches, The Reefs, the Rosedon, Newstead, Elbow Beach, Coco Reef or Tucker’s Point. The airline also sells tickets for the Crystal Caves, the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo and City of Hamilton tours.

BA’s most popular worldwide destination is London and one of the hotels that visitors from Bermuda can book through the website is The Athenaeum, a five-star, independently run hotel in Mayfair.

The historic property has been renovated this year and Jeremy Hopkins, the hotel’s general manager for the past three-and-a-half years, has a refreshingly straightforward approach to hospitality management that would make sense anywhere.

The amiable Welshman says his priorities are his employees, his customers and the business — in that order. Basically, he believes that if the employees are happy, well trained and motivated, then they will look after the guests, and the bottom line will take care of itself. He starts by leading by example.

“When I first came here the staff would hide from me,” said Mr Hopkins, who previously worked at hotels including The Savoy and The Grove. “I made a point of saying ‘good morning’ every time I passed anyone. Then they started saying ‘good morning’ to everyone. I did not have to ask them to do it they just did it.

“Hotels are commercial properties and I think sometimes general managers get mixed up with looking at website distribution and business matters and forgetting that it’s all about the guest you have in front of you.

“That guest can tell hundreds of people about their experience through social media.”

Mr Hopkins said what guests want has not changed much over the years except for a growing emphasis on security.

“Everyone wants a nice bed and a great breakfast,” he said. “They always have done. All hotels should be able to provide those things.

“Where you can differentiate yourself is in the detail. If you know a guest likes to read a certain newspaper then once they have told you, you never need to ask them again. If they don’t like bananas you don’t put bananas in the fruit bowl.

“Our staff talk to our guests and every preference they discover is recorded on the guest’s profile. Children are very important too. When we hired some nannies we had a panel of six children to interview them, aged between five and 14.

“We try to give our guests individual experience. So everything is tailored to the guest as much as possible.”

The Athenaeum, which was once owned by the Rank Organisation, has a long history of accommodating entertainment industry stars. Marlon Brando, Marlena Dietrich, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg are among those who have been guests. Mr Spielberg edited the movie ET in his suite during a six-month stay.

“We do not treat celebrities any differently from any other guest,” Mr Hopkins said. “The only time we might do that is if an autograph hunter moves in and we would step in.”

Watery landing: the flying boat Cavalier, which provided the Imperial Airlines service to New York in 1937
Aviation authority: Keith Hayward, 87, one of the guides at the BA Speedbird Centre's Heritage Collection
Realistic experience: the flight simulators where BA pilots are trained and assessed, each worth around $13 million
Bumpy flight: Jonathan Kent, The Royal Gazette's business editor, at the controls of a Boeing 747 flight simulator in BA's training facility
Emergency gear: BA's Andy Clubb shows off some of the equipment for use after a remote emergency crash landing - as yet unused
Common-sense philosophy: Jeremy Hopkins, general manager of The Athenaeum hotel in London