BALPA was established in 1937 by pilot Eric Lane-Burslem, who, when flying an ice-laden four-engine Imperial Airways biplane, had a narrow escape after all four engines cut out at 9,000 feet. This, along with another serious incident two years earlier, persuaded Lane-Burslem to form a pilots’ association in order to form a proper level of pilot safety. The first official mass meeting of pilots was held on 27th June 1937.

Lane-Burslem recognised that, to be taken seriously, BALPA had to keep closely in touch with Parliament. Aviation debates had a very poor turnout of MPs, so any concerns were brushed aside. This prompted Lane-Burslem to include positions of President and Vice-President who would represent BALPA in Parliament. The first President was Lord Chesham, and the first Vice-President was Lord Amherst.

In 1939, Imperial Airways changed its name to British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Four years later, BALPA affiliated to the TUC and negotiated a new contract for BOAC pilots, which made them the first employees anywhere to receive an occupational pension. 



Expansion of BALPA

Between 1947 and 1966 BALPA membership rose from 1,000 to over 3,000, reflecting the huge increase in air travel in the 50s and 60s. For most of this time, BALPA’s General Secretary was Denis Follows, who become a much-respected figure in the industry. After receiving informal help with two BOAC pilot’s strikes and BALPA’s disaffiliation with NJC (National Joint Council) from Mark Young, who was then with the Electrical Trades Union, BALPA appointed Young as the General Secretary in 1974. During the fifteen years of Young’s leadership, members’ salaries and conditions increased substantially. 

There were many structural changes in the industry in the 70s and 80s, with BEA and BOAC uniting in 1972. Two years later, they merged with Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airways to form British Airways. With structural changes comes growth, and so a major strategic decision by BALPA meant that it became an association for all UK commercial pilots, not just ones at specific airlines. Virgin Atlantic became a recognised BALPA airline in 2000 and easyJet pilots followed suit by voting for BALPA recognition in 2001. Today, BALPA represents pilots in 23 different companies, from both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. 


BALPA’s technical contributions

Under the leadership of its National Executive Council (NEC) from the 60s to the 80s, BALPA developed a strong ‘technical section’, including a main committee and numerous specialist groups. BALPA’s technical competence has enabled it to make many contributions to the development of the airline industry, and make valued suggestions to the UK regulatory and safety authorities.

It was also one of the founding members of  the international pilots’ organisation, IFALPA. BALPA continues to contribute to IFALPA's work. An important contribution to Sir Douglas Bader’s committee on Flight Time Limitations was also made by BALPA, which resulted in the first proper UK controls on pilots’ flying hours. 

BALPA was closely involved in the development of Concorde. The British manufacturers of the aircraft and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) allowed BALPA access, enabling them to contribute to the engineering and operational aspects of the project. BALPA members spent a considerable amount of time flying the simulators, and in 1974-75, several members flew the pre-production aircraft in test-flights. This was a unique example of close liaison between BALPA, an aircraft manufacturer, and the regulatory authorities. 

In 1991, BALPA was one of the founder members of the European Cockpit Association (ECA), which is dedicated to ensuring that the pilots’ voice is clearly heard in Brussels. However, BALPA’s greatest contribution to the aviation industry has been its research and recommendations to improve flight safety. 



BALPA in the 2000s

Jim McAuslan was appointed General Secretary in 2001 and under his watch, BALPA’s influence and expertise grew significantly, leading to the successful prevention of an EU attempt to water down fatigue regulations in 2003. Furthermore, in 2006, BALPA secured a commitment from the Government stating that that UK standards would not be reduced despite new EU rules. Two years later in 2008, BALPA membership reached the 10,000 mark.  

BALPA’s industrial relationships with airlines and principles of ‘professional engagement’ is at the heart of its member representation. These relationships have sometimes presented difficult negotiations though, with BALPA successfully defending a court case brought against it by Ryanair in 2006. The judge condemned Ryanair’s evidence to the court, and directed they pay all the Association’s substantial costs. Similarly in 2008, legal action alone prevented a strike at British Airways over the establishment of a new low-cost airline in Europe. BALPA’s approach to industrial negotiations continues to reflect the professional nature of its members’ vocation.

BALPA also uses its legal expertise to secure fairness for members. For example, in 2011, the Association won a major case in the European Court of Justice over the treatment of pilots’ pay during their holidays. Over £35million back-pay was paid to pilots and individual holiday pay entitlement was improved for the future. 

A significant and long-running issue for the Association has been pilot fatigue, and BALPA’s expertise and professional opinion in this area is well respected by members. In 2012, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee invited BALPA to give evidence on proposed EU rules on the working hours and conditions for pilots. The TSC’s final report rejected draft proposals, and suggested further improvements were required or “safety could be at risk”.

Just a few months later, hundreds of pilots and cabin crew from across Europe demonstrated in front of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Cologne, to reiterate that safety must be at the heart of the new pilot fatigue rules. However, in October 2013, despite the advice of its own EU Transport Committee, the European Commission voted to accept the EASA proposals in full, with implementation to begin in 2016.

As the airline industry continues to expand, BALPA continues to have a key role, now representing over 85% of all UK pilots. Today, it is based at Heathrow with over 200 pilot representatives, and 45 full-time staff dealing with flight safety, scheduling, terms and conditions, legal support, lobbying, and taking our message to external audiences, including the media.

The unity of our members is what is at the heart of BALPA. It is what formed the Association in 1937, is at the core of everything we do today, and as long as there are professional pilots, there will be BALPA.