On August 24, 1919 a single-engined biplane took off from a field in Middlesex bound for Paris. It carried one passenger and a cargo of leather, grouse and some jars of Devonshire cream.  Today British Airways, can trace its ancestry back to this first-ever scheduled international flight.

It was the start of a century of innovation that has included serving the first airline meals, operating the first scheduled jet service, making the first automated landing, introducing the first fully flat beds on board and many more. In the early days, British Airways’ antecedent, Imperial Airways, often pioneered new air routes. Many of these were in Africa.

Today British Airways serves 13 destinations in nine countries in Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands. Its franchise partner, British Airways operated by Comair, flies to all South Africa’s major cities as well as five destinations in southern Africa and the Indian Ocean.

British Airways A380 flying over Table Bay. Picture: Mark Mansfield

In 1952, Imperial Airways’ successor cut the flight time from London to Johannesburg to just 23 hours when a BOAC Comet operated the first commercial passenger jet service. The same flight today on an Airbus A380, takes a little over 11 hours.

From biplanes to the Flight of the Future

“There have been tremendous leaps over the past 100 years, from aircraft technology to the onboard experience, which has evolved beyond all recognition,” says Sue Petrie, trade commercial manager for southern Africa.

“Early aircraft were noisy and uncomfortable, more suited to carrying mail than passengers. In-flight entertainment might have been a newspaper and the catering a selection of sandwiches.”

Imperial Airways back in the day

As part of its centenary, to find out what flying will look like in 20, 40, 60 and even 100 years from now British Airways commissioned one of the largest global consumer travel studies of its kind; The BA2119: Flight of the Future Report.

Among the findings was that consumers want far more personalisation from their flying experience. This was especially prevalent in emerging markets, including Africa, where 47% of South African respondents said they wanted a dedicated communal space for socialising.

In future, biological scanners in aircraft seats will gather information about travellers’ physiological and nutritional needs. The data will suggest food and drink to meet these requirements, which can be 3D-printed on board.

Technology will also revolutionise in-flight entertainment and customer service. Artificial-intelligence-powered personalisation will allow people to bring cloud-based work and entertainment profiles to their seats. Holographic flight attendants will field basic questions, freeing up cabin crew to offer more personal service.

Although the next generation of supersonic jets will dramatically cut travel time by more than half, the report predicts that within 50 years we will see a trend for slow, experiential flights as consumers seek a leisurely start to their holidays.

BOAC Short Solent S45

This may not be as extraordinary as it sounds. In 1948, BOAC added a stop to its Southampton-Johannesburg service just so it’s customers could see Victoria Falls from the air. It may yet prove to be an idea about 120 years ahead of its time.

To mark its anniversary British Airways has opened its  Centenary Archive Collection of images and videos including images of some of the aircraft which pioneered the early African routes to its brand-new Club suite.