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Article from BTNews 26 SEPTEMBER 2022

ON THE SOAPBOX: Jeff Mills *

All change.

BTN’s Editor-in-Chief, Malcolm Ginsberg, stepping down after so many years at the heart of the aviation and travel business, is excuse enough for Editor-at-Large Jeff Mills to take a look back on how things have changed over the past 50 years or so.  See also Richard Cawthorne's piece from last week.

"If business travellers think life on the road now is tough they may like to spare a thought for those who were expected to follow government rules in the 1960s and 70s and spend no more than £50 per trip while they were away.

I remember clearly the chore of having to trudge from my newspaper’s offices close to Fleet Street to a branch of Coutts bank in The Strand before any business trip, where I had to present my passport, which would then be marked on a special page stuck in at the back with the date and amount of foreign currency I had been issued with.

The overseas spending limit of £50, the equivalent of about £650 today, had been introduced by Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1966 in an attempt to narrow what had been a large balance of payments deficit and at the same time revive the faltering economy.  

It failed eventually, not least because foreign companies and high-net-worth individuals could see little point in investing in the UK if it turned out to be virtually impossible to get any profits out of the country again. The currency controls were eventually abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979.

One success of the scheme, however, was to encourage business travellers to make more use of travel agents. You may not have been able to take more than £50 abroad with you but there was nothing to stop you paying for as much of your trip as possible in the UK before you travelled.

You could not only pay for your air fare and hotel, car rental and the rest in sterling before you left home but I seem to remember that in some cases ways could even be found for you to pay for full board, so you didn’t even need to shell out for food while you were away.

In those dark and distant pre-computer days you could spot when one of your colleagues was about to embark on a business trip. It was when he or she was seen poring over one of two huge reference books normally kept in the cupboard which served as the office library.

Before the internet made looking up flights much quicker, it was the ABC World Airways Guide which business travellers turned to – a very chunky monthly publication which had started life as a rail timetable and was by then a guide to every scheduled flight anywhere in the world.

The other publication was the OAG, or Official Airlines Guide, originally an American timetable listing which was later bought by Reed, the UK publishers of the ABC guide, with what we would now call a reverse takeover the OAG title remaining.  The OAG guide still exists, owned by a UK private equity company the web version the database for all airline/airport public scheduling.

Your seniority in the company was often reflected in the class of travel you booked. First Class for really senior executives, Business Class for others if you were lucky. Economy was largely regarded as for tourists. The choice of hotel was part of the status game, too. If you were really senior you simply had to stay in what was perceived to be the best hotel in town.

Technology has changed enormously, too. Setting off on a trip in the mid-1970s there would be the suitcase, of course, and the carry-on bag – in my case it was one of those chunky and rather heavy leather versions much loved by airline pilots and travelling journalists (you could fit half a dozen bottles of booze standing up inside them if the need arose).

And then there was the latest ‘technology’ for globetrotting business people. A so-called ‘portable’ typewriter, which weighed the best part of today’s total airline baggage allowance and plenty of paper, ribbons and carbon paper to go with it.

Mobile phones were still some way off. And when they did first start to make an appearance, in about the mid-1980s, they were so huge you had to carry them with a strap over your shoulder.

And the challenges of communicating and staying in touch with the office continued once I had reached my destination. One of the first questions to the reception staff once I had checked in to my hotel was usually, “where’s the business centre and is it open?”

A visit to check it out was always a priority, just to make sure that it had everything I was likely to need, including phones which allowed people to make reverse-charge calls to the office, and, a few years later, a fax machine for transmitting pages of copy direct from my portable typewriter.

The bliss of ‘portable’ laptop computers may have been hard on the heels of the desktop versions but they were often a bit too big to make taking them on a business trip an attractive proposition.

Mind you there were some perks of the job, too, some of them pretty spectacular. To this day I feel very privileged to have flown on Concorde, for example, not once but a number of times but First Class wasn’t too shabby either.  

My first trip in First Class was on a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Boeing 747-100 in 1973, just a year or so before the long-haul airline merged with its shorter-haul stablemate British European Airways (BEA) to form British Airways.

It was pure chance, and possibly a spot of overbooking by the airline, that saw me, in those days a young reporter, upgraded from the depths of Economy to the heady heights of the premium cabin. There was no Club World or Business Class in those days.

Separate check-in desks for first-class passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport, of course – though I could have chosen to check-in at the West London Air Terminal near Victoria Station – and staff whose professional smiles appeared much brighter than those manning the economy desks. “Where would you like to sit, Sir?” I was asked, “an aisle or window seat”? And how about this, “would you like to be in the smoking or non-smoking section?”

And before I knew it I was in the first-class lounge in Terminal 3 (long before T5 was built) sipping the first gin-and-tonic of the day and studying my fellow passengers while we waited for the call to board our Boeing 747 to New York.

Luckily I was wearing a jacket and tie, as was the norm in those days, otherwise I very much doubt whether I would have been blessed with an upgrade. And formality was the order of the day with most of the other well-heeled passengers waiting to board. Suits for the men and smart dresses for the women – this was, after all, an occasion.  And we were allowed to venture upstairs to the private lounge!"

Jeff Mills has been reporting on the business and leisure travel and lifestyle sectors for more years than he cares to remember, during which time he has visited most countries of the world at least once. A previous Editor of the leading travel industry newspaper, Travel Weekly, and Travel Editor of Sunday Business, London-based Mills now writes regularly for a number of national and international newspapers, as well as glossy consumer magazines, business magazines and travel websites.


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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Titus Johnson, London UK

Thank you Malcolm. It was a pleasure to work with you. Always informed and you always recognised the big picture on your reportage.

Malcolm Ginsberg, Edgware, London

Thank you for your note Mr Jones but your visit must have been in 1983. The Prince of Wales, a man of vision, laid the foundation stone 29 May 1986.

John Jones, East Ham

One thing Jeff has not mentioned in his timescale is the creation of London City Airport in which Malcolm played a vital role and still pops up from time to time. In 1976 I got dragged down to the site. The LDDC, Mowlem & Brymon must be mad. How wrong we were. His LCY book tells the story.

David Starkie, United Kingdom

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. You didn't mention though the limitations of the IATA cartel on what seat pitch you were allowed (in economy at least) or what could be served up to you as a meal. Anthony Sampson's Empires of the Sky remains a great read on all of this.

Malcolm Ginsberg, Edgware

BOAC was at Victoria in a building that still exists. BEA was Knightsbridge on the road to Heathrow.

Noel Gilmartin, United Kingdom

Ah the nostalgia - but checking in at "West London Air Terminal near Victoria Station" for a BOAC flight? Victoria Terminal surely...

Jill Smith, Luton

I read both Jeff Mills and the previous week, Richard Cawthorne’s pieces. The last 50 years in air travel have been fascinating. Once the private jet was the domain of only a few. If you can afford it why not bypass the main airports!

Malcolm Ginsberg, Edgware

We can all reminisce. I too flew upstairs in a 747 upstairs lounge. Iran Air. Last flight ever in the Shah’s reign. London to New York but we did not know what was going on in Persia.