History of BALPA

There was a brief pilots’ strike in 1924 about pay, conditions and a particularly abrasive Manager, Major Woods Humphrey. However the trigger which led to the creation of BALPA in the late thirties was the irresponsible attitude of Imperial Airways towards safety issues and particularly the risk of airframe icing on one type.


Eric Lane Burslem, eventually BALPA’s first chairman, briefed by the American pilots on how to set up a pilots’ association, worked with others to create an ‘Organising Committee’. This met on 18th May 1937 to draft the Association rules which were put to a mass meeting of pilots on 27th June. Either of these dates could be regarded as the birthday of BALPA. Imperial Airways and Woods Humphries initiated a programme of intimidation including libel and sackings of BALPA members. Other airlines either stood on the sidelines but some were supportive.

Robert Perkins, a Conservative MP, supported the pilots and initiated a debate in Parliament which led to the formation of the Cadman Committee of Inquiry. Their report recommended massive changes in British Commercial Aviation, including airline mergers to create in 1939, British Overseas Airways Corporation a new airline under new managers including its Chairman Sir John Reith (founder of the BBC). Woods Humphrey was sacked.

During the Second World War there was little truly commercial flying. (Some BOAC pilots flew civilian registered Mosquito bombers collecting essential ball bearings from Sweden). A number of BALPA’s founders were killed on active service. However the Association was not inactive and in 1943 it affiliated to the TUC and signed a memorandum of understanding with Canadian and American pilots leading eventually to the creation of the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA).

In 1944 the new BOAC pilots’ contract made them the first employees anywhere to receive an occupational pension. In 1946 BOAC was nationalised whilst British European Airways (BEA) and British South American Airways were set up by the Government. The same year BALPA joined in the creation of the National Joint Council for Civil Aviation.

Between 1947 and 1966 BALPA membership rose from one thousand plus to over three thousand. From 1946 until 1962 the much respected General Secretary was Dennis Follows who eventually left the Association to become Chairman of the Football Association and then Chairman of the British Olympic Association.

The sixties were a troubled time with much pilot unrest. The Association disaffiliated from the NJC in 1967 and in 1968 there were two strikes of BOAC pilots. During this period Mark Young, then with the Electrical Trades Union (and also on the Trades Union side of the NJC) had acted as an ‘honest broker’ between the two sides. After a period of giving informal help to BALPA during which he helped avoid a BEA pilots strike in 1972, he was formally appointed a General Secretary in 1974.

BEA and BOAC were united under one board in 1972 and were merged with Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airways to form British Airways in 1974. During the ensuing fifteen or so years, under the wily leadership of Mark Young, BALPA members saw their real salaries and conditions increase substantially. This was especially true in BA and there was some resentment among non BA pilots who sometimes referred to BALPA as the ‘British Airways Pilot’s Association’ (although they too saw improvements).

In 1977 BALPA joined Europilote a European wide association of Pilots’ Unions. As the political and regulatory structure of Europe changed it was felt that Europilote should change too. BALPA was one of the founder members of the European Cockpit Association (ECA) dedicated to ensuring that the pilots’ voice was clearly heard in Brussels. Perhaps the ECA’s most auspicious battle has been with the politicians and bureaucrats of Brussels over the issue of Flight and Duty Time Limitations and BALPA’s input to this debate has been considerable.

When Mark Young died in 1991 the membership was above 5000. In 1992 Chris Darke was elected General Secretary and the balance between BA and non BA pilots within the Association started to tilt away from BA as the non BA airline proliferated and BALPA membership in them increased.

A full BA strike was narrowly averted in 1996. In the late nineties and into the new century new low cost airlines expanded rapidly giving BALPA many problems in representing their pilots. In 2006 BALPA won a court case brought against it by Ryanair. The Judge condemned Ryanair’s evidence to the Court and directed that the airline had to pay all the Association’s substantial costs. In 2000 Virgin Atlantic Airways became a BALPA airline.

As the membership passed seven thousand in 1997, Chris Darke was re-elected but he was voted out of office in 2002. After a period of some confusion Jim McAuslan was elected General Secretary in 2003.

BA had a further confrontation with its pilots in 2008 over the establishment of its new low cost airline in Europe and the BA pilots staged a protest march at Heathrow Airport. In 2008 BALPA membership passed ten thousand for the first time.