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TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: AirUK

AirUK began with a merger of four British regional airlines. British Island Airways, Air Anglia, Air Wales, and Air Westward merged together beginning in March of 1979 to form AirUK. The airline was officially incorporated on January 1st, 1980 and commenced operations on January 16th. Following this merger AirUK became the largest regional carrier in the United Kingdom and the third largest carrier, behind British Caledonian and British Airways. Because of this AirUK became known as the “Third Force” in British air travel.

After the merger the airline employed 1,700 people and flew one million passengers annually. The airline also had a fleet of 40 aircraft consisting of six jets and 34 turboprops. At this time they served 33 total destinations with 11 being outside the UK. AirUK also became the first and only airline to serve the principal three London Airports at the time; Gatwick, Heathrow, and Stansted. In 1980, British Airways announced they would retire their Vickers Viscount’s and discontinue loss-making regional routes. AirUK took this as an opportunity to expand and add new routes. Soon after this announcement, the airline started new services, most prominently the route between Heathrow and Guernsey.

The 1980’s brought a recession to the UK and a downturn for AirUK. To curtail losses in the bad economy, AirUK closed several bases around the UK including, Bournmouth, Stansted, and Humberside. The airline also laid off numerous employees and retired ten turboprops and leased out two F-28 Fellowships to a French airline. AirUK closed their maintenance base in Blackpool that they had inherited from BIA resulting in 220 jobs lost. The airline restarted service to Stansted in 1981. The 1980’s resulted in AirUK cutting over 400 jobs and suspending service to 14 destinations. Management hoped that these measures would recover the losses the airline had occurred from the merger and from the recession.

In 1982 Peter Villa bought out AirUK’s charter operations, along with four BAc One-Elevens, to relaunch British Island Airways. At the time AirUK was suffering financially from the merger and were desperate to cut back expenses. Later that year the CAA revoked AirUK’s license to fly between Gatwick and Guernsey and transferred it to new startup Guernsey Airlines after complaints about AirUK’s service on the route. Also in 1982 AirUK partnered with British Midland to create Manx Airlines, based on the Isle of Man. The idea was to lessen the losses on unprofitable Isle of Man routes by having them run by a lower cost subsidy.

The airline finally broke even in 1983, after 3 years of losses. The airline also took delivery of a new aircraft type, the Short 330. The middle of the 1980’s brought expansion for the once struggling airline. More Short 330’s entered the fleet throughout the year and the stretched Fokker F-27, which allowed more passengers per flight. The airline also reentered the jet age by leasing two Fokker F-28’s and two BAc One-Elevens. In Europe, AirUK’s primary focus was Amsterdam and became the largest foreign operator from Amsterdam. The expansion in fleet allowed several routes to be reinstated mostly from London Stansted.

One of the most iconic regional jets, the BAe 146, joined the fleet in 1987. Also in 1987, the airline created AirUK leisure as a charter airline. It’s main focus was to take tourists to holiday destination similarly to British AirTours. The operator became the first UK operator of the Boeing 737-400 when they took delivery of the jets in 1988. The airline expanded to international destinations with leased Boeing 767-300ER and used under the moniker of Leisure International Airways. Shortly afer the international expansion the subsidiary was sold to Unijet and became part of the First Choice group.

After the merger of British Airways and British Caledonian, CAA awarded AirUK BCal’s routes from Gatwick to Glasgow and Scotland. They created a shuttle between London and the Scottish cities with seven daily flights between the pairs. The airline also added stretched BAe 146-300 to better accommodate the route. In 1990’s the airline purchased Fokker F-100’s to give more capacity on European routes and acquired more modern Fokker F-27-500 to replace the older F-27’s in the fleet. Later in the 1990’s the airline purchased new modern ATR-72 and Fokker F-50 to completely replace the aging F-27’s.

In 1997 KLM purchased AirUK and renamed it to KLMuk in 1998. The aircraft took on a modified KLM livery. KLMuk continued operations till 2002 when KLM merged operations with CityHopper. AirUK was the premier regional carrier in the UK and provided an alternative to flying British Airways. The BAe 146’s in the AirUK livery became iconic in the UK as a symbol for British pride in the late 80’s. Although they are now gone, the legacy of AirUK will remain for the enormous impact they made on the regional air market in the UK.

Daniel Morley


  • Daniel Morley

    Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.

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