My first ever flying experience was on a Vanguard prop on British Airways from Heathrow to Paris Le Bourget airport. Charles de Gaulle did not exist. I had no idea as a toddler that I would spend over two thirds of my life selling flights but I do remember even then being fascinated by aircraft and I always loved flying in the days before having to worry about plastic bags, security and weight limits. There would always be a proper meal with a knife and fork, no matter how short the flight was and I especially loved flying on my own. It was a great adventure to be packed off on French holidays with my aunt, uncle and cousin as my mum bought me up alone and she had to work.
Years later when I left school I was still fascinated by the world around me and wanted to be part of it. Having worked in business travel and retail travel, I wanted to try the airline industry so I joined British Airways in 1977
During my intensive six week training with British Airways, I had to learn about fare construction, mileages and routings. For this I had to sit very tough exams which I passed with flying colours
I still have a world route map and hundreds of airport codes in my head and I sometimes recall all this information on round the world routings. It is also useful when flights are full and I can think of less obvious routings or alternative airports.
Another part of our training was looking at a 747 and Concorde on the ground and seeing a simulator in action. The simulator can be set to any weather conditions in any commercial airport and probably the most challenging for any pilot would have been landing a 747 at the notorious Kai Tak in Hong Kong. If you could safely land at Kai Tak in bad weather, you could land anywhere. I have actually experienced this first hand and wonder how there was never a major accident in Hong Kong.
I was surprised how simple the panels were on Concorde with the 747 having a far more complicated flight deck with hundreds of switches and buttons. Sadly I never got the opportunity to fly on Concorde and my visit on the ground was my only time inside the aircraft.
The airline industry were in fact the first industry to use computers commercially on a worldwide scale and I was lucky to be part of that. We used a green screen on a system called BABS (British Airways Booking System)
We worked at WLAT (West London Air Terminal) a huge open plan office in a multi storey block in Cromwell Road. It was pretty much as you would expect a call centre to look. We each had a corner with a green screen computer, a headset, a set of drawers and the corners were divided by screens. The reservations department was split over two entire floors, one for agents on the 3rd floor and one for the public on the 6th floor. In reservations alone there were about 600 of us in small teams that trained together with three supervisors for each team. In my role as a reservations agent, I would take a call from an agent, book the flight, put in the agency details and quote the fare. The whole process took just a couple of minutes and I would just take call after call, most being very straightforward returns but some were very long and complicated round the world itineraries and sometimes we used to book Concorde as well
The reservations that we made only stayed in the system for a limited time and occasionally I would have to look for an archive file on a microfiche. A microfiche was a machine which could magnify minute photographic data and print it off. I only ever had to use this a couple of times and remember it being very awkward to use but libraries still use this method to store data permanently and safely
British Airways treated us very well, we had a subsidised staff canteen and a bar, which was also subsidised. We also travelled for virtually nothing and when a new route was introduced we would get to try them out. The union looked after us so we were very well paid, earning twice as much as I had in retail. At that time we were considered to be highly skilled because the PC did not yet exist and we were amongst the first people in the entire world to use computers all day and every day for work.
I was given the opportunity to work at staff travel at Heathrow for maternity cover. I was chosen because I was the one who had joined with the most experience and I even got free travel from WLAT to Heathrow. I absolutely loved every minute that I worked at the airport. I loved the whole environment and I used to go and watch the airplanes in my lunch hour. They had only just installed the travelator at Heathrow to get between the terminals and I used to use this to get from Terminal 1 where my coach from WLAT arrived to Terminal 3 where I worked. I couldn’t believe I could walk all that way in just a few minutes.
I sometimes think of my old team, our Friday nights at the bar and our trips to Copenhagen and Zurich and my day trip to Boston, yes I actually did do that from London
Once the Piccadilly line was extended to Heathrow in 1977, there was no longer a need for an air terminal in central London so the building was sold to Sainsburys and the reservations team moved to Hatton Cross and many were made redundant. Eventually more agencies their own centralised flight systems and the huge reservations department became agency support with a premium rate number just to ensure the support was as minimal as possible and when the system eventually became web based the department became virtually redundant with just a small department to deal with customer support queries