While everyone has heard of Southwest Airlines, Ryanair and easyJet, did you know that Skyways Coach-Air Limited was the world’s first low-cost airline? After the end of the Second World War in May 1945, Europe, and in particular the United Kingdom, experienced a boom in charter airline start-ups. With surplus military aircraft available at bargain prices and many ex-military pilots to fly them, the idea of starting a charter airline was not so far-fetched.
The Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949 added to the boom. After the end of World War II and the Allied and Soviet occupation of Germany, Berlin was divided into sectors, with the Red Army controlling the east and the Americans, British and French in the west. The only way to supply the western sector at the time was a thin corridor through Soviet-controlled territory.
The Berlin Airlift
In 1948, relations between Washington and Moscow began to deteriorate and Moscow decided to cut off access to West Berlin. Fearing that West Berlin would be absorbed into the new communist East Germany, the Allies responded by airlifting huge amounts of food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in West Germany.
All of the new charter startups jumped on government contracts, including an airline called “Skyways Limited.” When the airlift ended on May 12, 1949, Skyways Limited needed to find new sources of revenue. In the early 1950s there were no departures to Spain, Italy and Greece to enjoy the summer sun, leaving British holidaymakers to spend their summer holidays in popular seaside resorts like Blackpool , Margate and Scarborough.
From Blackpool to the Isle of Man
To get to the beach, they traveled from inland towns by bus or, as they call them in the UK, “coaches”, short for motor coach.
Hugely popular with working people, the UK has seen a boom with bus operators looking to cash in on the trend. Skyways managing director Eric Rylands has come up with the idea of busing holidaymakers to Blackpool Squires Gate Airport (BLK) and then ferrying them across the Irish Sea to the seaside resorts of Isle of Man.
Holidaymakers would arrive at Blackpool Airport and then board Douglas C-47 Dakotas or de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapides for the 40-minute flight to Ronaldsway Airport (IOM) on the Isle of Man. The concept proved so popular that Skyways flew between Blackpool and the Isle of Man 16 times a day during the summer.
London to Paris
The success of the venture in the northwest of the country gave Ryalnds the confidence to extend the idea to cross-Channel flights. On September 30, 1955, Skyways launched the world’s first international combined bus-air service between London and Paris. The journey began at Victoria Coach Station in London, where passengers would board a bus for Lympne Airport (LYM) in Kent. From there, they would cross the channel aboard Skyways DC-3 to Beauvais Tillé Airport (BVA) in France.
After arriving safely on the mainland, they would board a bus for the journey to Paris. Using a combined bus-plane service from central London to central Paris, Skyways could sell tickets for 45% less than what airlines were charging to fly between the British and French capitals.
Skyways is acquired by Dan-Air
Following the success of London to Paris in 1958, Skyways Coach-Air Ltd was established as a dedicated low-cost coach-aircraft subsidiary of Skyways Ltd. A London-Brussels route followed to coincide with the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Passengers boarded at Victoria Station, traveled to Lympne, then flew to Antwerp before boarding a bus for the Gare du Midi bus station in Brussels. Later, the same concept was used for flights to Lyon, Montpellier, Nice and Clermont-Ferrand.
By the 1970s, road, rail, and public transit infrastructure had improved to such an extent that it was now more accessible for people to get to the airport without a charter bus. With this in mind, and given that Spain’s Costas were hosting millions of British tourists on charter holiday flights, Skyways abandoned the bus-to-air plan, deciding to focus solely on airport-to-airport charter flights. In April 1972, Skyways International was acquired by Dan-Air. The carrier was briefly known as Dan-Air Skyways before merging with the Gatwick-based airline.