Sir Adam Thomson, who died aged 73, was the founder and chairman of British Caledonian, one of Britain’s most successful independent airlines.
From humble Glaswegian origins and service in the Fleet Air Arm, Thomson emerged as the most enduring of a generation of post-aviation entrepreneurs. With little capital and not much help from government, he battled for 27 years to build a niche for British Caledonian in an industry dominated by state-backed national carriers and American giants.
From a single Douglas DC7 making charter flights in 1961, BCal grew to be the ninth largest European airline, with a fleet of 27 jet servicing almost 50 international destinations. Passengers warmed to BCal’s proud Scottish image, with tartan-clad cabin crew ("Wish they all could be Caledonian girls," went the jingle, borrowed from the Beach Boys) and the lion rampant on its tailplanes.
At the peak of its success in the early Eighties, it was voted by travel writers the best airline in the world.But in the fiercely competitive market of that time – particularly on the North Atlantic routes – BCal lacked critical mass to hold its own, especially as the Thatcher administration favoured British Airways in the run-up to privatisation.
After losing a crucial row with BA over allocation of routes in 1984, and suffering a series of other commercial misfortunes, B Cal fell – to Thomson’s deep regret – to a take over bid from BA in 1988.Small, quiet and deliberate in manner, Thomson was tough as nails at the boardroom table and in the defence of BCal’s interests. But he was liked by his 7,000 staff; B Cal had an excellent industrial relations record, and paid five percent of its profits into a staff share fund. And though he became a powerful and respected businessman, he remained an aviator at heart.
In New York on one occasion in the Sixties, negotiating a loan for new aircraft, he received an urgent call to say that the pilot of a B Cal New York-Bermuda flight had been taken ill. "You’re the nearest pilot, chairman," said the caller. "There’s a uniform waiting in the cockpit" "So I flew the darned thing," Thomson recalled. "And I loved it."
Adam Thomson was born on July 7 1926, the son of a shunter on the London Midland & Scottish Railway. Brought up in a Glasgow tenement, he was educated at Rutherglen Academy, Coatbridge College and the Royal Technical College (now Strathclyde University). At 17, in 1944, he volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and was sent to Canada for pilot training, earning his wings in a Fairchild Cornell trainer.After demobilisation Thomson was keen to venture out on his own. He tried starting a business flying joy-rides for holidaymakers at Largs on the Clyde, but financial backing was impossible to find. Instead, after a stint with the Ministry of Civil Aviation as a pilot instructor, he joined Newman Airways to fly bi-planes form the Isle of Wight to the Channel Islands.
In 1951 he joined British European Airways (BEA) and two years later he became a captain with West African Airways, based in Lagos. From there he transferred to Britavia, transporting troops around Africa and to Singapore. He once recalled the experience of low bush-flying through a squall during the African rainy season, "like a wet cliff coming at you". Thomson had ideas for Britavia route developments, but eventually decided to have a go at them himself. In partnership with a former BEA steward, John de la Haye, he raised $54,000 from investors – including some Scottish Americans – to charter a DC7 on a pay-as-you-fly basis from the Belgian airline Sabena.
The first Caledonian Airways flight was a charter carrying immigrants from Barbados on St Andrew’s Day 1961.The airline survived a tragic early setback when one of its first planes crashed in Africa with the loss of 100 lives. Finances were precarious and Caledonian was up against what Thomson called "International Goliath Airways", the state-backed carriers that controlled scheduled routes and fares. Caledonian could grow only by offering low-fare charters and package-holiday flights from Gatwick and Prestwick; it specialised in transatlantic deals for "affinity groups" with names such as Ma Brown’s Paisley Buddies. It also flew pilgrims to Mecca and migrants to Australia.
Many of Thomson’s charter competitors failed, but by 1968 Caledonian was running Boeing 707s regularly from Gatwick to New York, Los Angeles and Singapore.Meanwhile, the Labour government had responded to consumer pressure for cheaper flights by appointing the Edwards Committee, which recommended that BEA and BOAC (to be merged, in 1971, as British Airways) should be gingered up by competition from a "second-force" airline such as Caledonian. On the strength of this, Thomson raised more capital from among others, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Glaswegian Sir Isaac Wolfson’s Great Universal Stores and acquired the ailing British United Airways, where Freddie Laker had once been managing director.
Relaunched on St Andrew’s Day 1970 as British Caledonian, the airline acquired schedules routes to South America,West Africa, Europe and within Britain and later several to America. But conditions remained hard for a small operator – despite the Edwards Committee findings, B Cal was never able to increase its routes to much more than a tenth of British Airways’ network. And the collapse of the package holiday trade (particularly Horizon Holidays, for which it was the main carrier) after the 1973-74 oil crisis brought B Cal temporarily to its knees. Planes were grounded and staff laid off, but Thomson fought back, and by the end of the decade B Cal was carrying two million passengers a year.
It provided more than half of the traffic at Gatwick, and acquired new routes to Hong Kong and (after Laker Airways’ collapse in 1982) New York and Los Angeles. Such a paragon of gritty entrepreneurship might have been expected to thrive in the Thatcher years. But the Conservative government was anxious to ensure the successful privatisation of British Airways, under the leadership of the pugnacious Lord King of Wartnaby.
A proposal in 1983 by Thomson for the transfer of a significant portion of BA routes to B Cal – dismissed by King as a "smash and grab raid" – was partially endorsed in the following year by the Civil Aviation Authority, only to be rejected by ministers for fear of damaging BA’s flotation prospects. In the same period, B Cal suffered a series of other blows . It lost its Buenos Aires route because of the Falklands war, and Tripoli because of tensions with Libya. Fear of terrorism reduced passenger demand on North Atlantic routes, and economic chaos in Nigeria hit the profitability of its Lagos service.
Finally , in 1987, B Cal’s lucrative helicopter service between Heathrow and Gatwick was halted on environmental grounds. As B Cal weakened, BA was going from strength to strength: having floated on the Stock Exchange, it decided to end competition from B Cal by a £235 million takeover bid. The merger was approved by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on condition that some of B Cals’s domestic and European routes would be surrendered to smaller carriers. Thomson responded by inviting Scandinavian Airlines System to become a major shareholder in BCAL, but an increased bid from BA won the day.
Though only 61 and in full vigour, Thomson retired rather than sit on the board of the merged airline.Thomson was chairman of the Association of European Airlines in 1977-78 and of the Institute of Directors from 1988 to 1991. He was also a director of Williams & Glyn’s Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, Otis Elevators and the property group MEPC. He was appointed CBE in 1976 and knighted in 1983. He wrote High Risk: The Politics of the Air (1990). Adam Thomson lived modestly in the same house near Gatwick for most of his working life; he enjoyed golf, and kept a small sailing boat in Majorca. His luxury was a constant supply of Havana cigars. He married, in 1948, Dawn Burt. They had two sons.
Source: The Daily Telegraph, May 2000