Tradition returns for image-impaired British airline

As Prime Minister Tony Blair endeavors to win support for joining the single European currency, the euro, he may want to look at what Sunday's apparent about-face by British Airways says about the British public and its devotion to national images. If a row over airplane tailfins causes this much image-angst, what does that bode for giving up the pound sterling?

The whole thing started two years ago, when British Airways (BA) executives, eager to stress their company's globe-girdling reach, decided to replace the national flag, or Union Jack, on the tails of the airline's 330 aircraft with some 50 different multiethnic logos. Designs ranged from paintings of African jackals to wave designs from Japan and shapes based on Delft pottery from the Netherlands.

The move was in keeping with a drive, known as "cool Britannia," by Mr. Blair to update what was perceived as Britain's stuffy image abroad.

At the time, BA chief executive Bob Ayling said the airline wanted to get away from its "post-imperialist image." He commented: "Britain is changing. We still have our Beefeaters at the Tower of London, but now we lead the world in restaurants and fashion. We're the center of music for everything from opera to the Spice Girls."

But now the 60 million ($96 million) "ethnic world images" venture has gone into a nose dive. By order of Mr. Ayling, announced June 6, the red, white, and blue of the national flag will be put back on the tailfins of most of the fleet by 2001.

The main idea, says Ayling, is to placate British travelers who account for 40 percent of BA's custom. Opinion surveys suggest they thought multiethnicity on a plane's tail to be out of place. In the end, it seems, they agreed with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, when shown a model of plane with an African motif in 1997, appeared on nationwide television covering it with a handkerchief.

"We have had overwhelming support from people outside Britain," Ayling claims, but British customers wanted images "they could identify with their own culture."

Perhaps not coincidentally, the airline announced it was throwing its tailfin strategy into reverse-thrust 24 hours before Richard Branson, head of archrival Virgin Airlines, unveiled a redesigned livery for his international fleet. Two years ago, as BA began removing the Union Jack from its planes, Mr. Branson ordered that it be painted on his. In future, an updated version of the flag will appear on the fins of all Virgin aircraft.

Branson grinned broadly as he declared June 7, "This was an expensive mistake by BA. Those squiggly lines didn't work.... BA is falling back into line with us."

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