TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: British West Indies Airways

BWIA International TriStar (Photo provided by Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to Caribbean Airlines’s dominance of the Caribbean market in recent years, another Trinidad and Tobago carrier used to own the title of being one of the biggest island fliers. Its name was British West Indian Airways, or BWIA for short. BWIA dates back to 1939, when New Zealander and World War I pilot Lowell Yerex started the carrier using a single Lockheed Lodestar with one route between Trinidad and Barbados. The airline at the time was called West Indian Airlines but after a takeover by British South American Airways (BSAA), the carrier became BWIA.

International powerhouse British Overseas Airways Corporation, or BOAC, quickly absorbed BSAA in 1949. With BOAC backing BSAA, the airline quickly received a facelift with the Lodestars being replaced with Vickers Viscounts and Bristol Britannias to start long-range service to North America. After nearly 10 years with BOAC, the Trinidad and Tobago government acquired a 90% stake in BWIA and over the next 7 years would acquire the remaining 10%.

While the government was busy acquiring British West Indies, the jet age had begun with the introduction of the Boeing 727 replacing the Viscounts given to them by BOAC. Boeing 707s were also brought in to run intra-Caribbean routes while the Boeing 727s focused on the routes to North America, primarily New York. With the government now owning 100% of BWIA, they announced they would merge their two national carriers (BWIA and Trinidad and Tobago Air Services) into one carrier.

The 1970s saw the return of London to British West Indies’ route map, utilizing Boeing 707s for a few months before receiving their first Lockheed Martin L-1011. The airline also replaced the Boeing 727s with McDonnell-Douglas MD-80s to allow for a longer range and a newer look for the fleet. As BWIA added more L-1011s to their fleet, they also added more destinations with Manchester, UK and Frankfurt, Germany appearing on their route map alongside Toronto.

With a very stable 70s and 80s in their rear view, British West Indies looked to privatize their airline by offering stakes in the carrier. With the rise of fuel prices, they also used the 1990s as a way to revamp their routes, cutting their Manchester flight as well as a few inter-Caribbean flights. The Lockheed L-1011s was replaced with Airbus A340s, along with canceling an order of 10 Airbus A321s after only 2 deliveries.

In 2001 the airline made its debut on the Trinidad and Tobago stock market as it continued to become a privatized airline with a majority of the ownership belonging to US and Caribbean investment groups. The airline also started taking a stake in Tobago Express and Leeward Island Air Transport (LIAT) regional carriers to help expand their network with a 45% stake in Tobago Express and 23% stake in LIAT by 2005.

The airline also used privatization as a way to rebrand itself. In 2000, the carrier rolled out a new livery replacing the mostly golden yellow and white paint scheme that had pink letters. The new livery was brighter, with the Trinidad and Toboggan instrument the steelpan being shown on the tail and forward section of the fuselage. The yellow remained but took a backseat as a light green color covered most of the plane. The airline name, BWIA West Indies, was written above the over wing emergency exits and the airline’s website bwee.com displayed behind the wing on the port side. The airline also took delivery of seven Boeing 737s, replacing their fleet of Airbus A321s and MD-80s. The Airbus A340s would remain in BWIA’s fleet and continue operating the London-Port of Spain route.

The airline reached its peak in 2003, becoming the Caribbean’s largest carrier with 660 flights a week and averaging 1.4 million passengers over the year. However, while the carrier had been making more money and carrying more passengers, BWIA was still struggling to turn a profit. The Trinidad and Tobago government had to inject money into BWIA multiple times to keep the carrier afloat. In 2005, the government started looking into rebranding BWIA or scrapping the carrier altogether. Their answer came a year later, when the airline failed to sign an agreement with multiple unions that worked for BWIA. As soon as the talks broke down, the Trinidad and Tobago government announced that BWIA was bankrupt and the government would look into starting a new airline.

After the demise of BWIA, the Trinidad and Toboggan government announced that a new carrier, called Caribbean Airlines, would be the replacement as the new national carrier. Caribbean started in 2007 and took over BWIA’s Boeing 737s while the A340s were released from BWIA after the carrier’s demise. Caribbean has restored most of BWIA’s former route map including the London route utilizing Boeing 767s. After their latest expansion and takeover of Air Jamaica, Caribbean Airlines has become the Caribbean’s largest carrier, just like BWIA did years before.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry