Flying to Japan

We sometimes take for granted how easy it is to fly across the world. The jet-engine revolution in civil aviation of the 1950s cut distances short considerably. I stumbled upon a few timetables from the 1950s and 60s which really drive that point home.


The above is a British Overseas Aviation Corporation timetable from 1953 (BOAC was the predecessor company of today’s BA and merged with British European Airways in the early 70s). Two services were offered on the eastward tour of the former empire, the propeller Argonaut and the new jet engine Comet.

The Argonaut was a veritable stop train. You could book yourself on a tour de force from London to Tokyo on BA 906 – the route went via Frankfurt, Rome, Damascus, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok and Hong Kong. That assumes that you had time to spare from Sunday 8pm until Thursday 6.35pm.

On the same graphic, one can see that jet engines really made this journey more doable. BA 914 left London at 10am and also made frequent stops – in Rome, Beirut, Bahrain, Karachi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok, Manila and finally Tokyo – yet managed the whole trip in just a bit more than 30 hours.

This Alitalia ad from 1962 is a classic (from the Economist print edition):



Clockwise travel via the US back to London usually went through Honolulu, San Francisco and New York, as can be seen above (from here).

One of the problems that made these trips to Japan so long was that often planes from Western Europe needed to avoid Soviet and Chinese airspace. Lengthy diversions meant frequent refuelling stops.


The introduction of the “polar route” via north pole and a refuelling stop in Alaska’s Anchorage changed this and provided a quicker and more direct connection to Japan. JAL offered this service already from 1961 onwards, whereas BOAC only did so in 1969 according to BA’s website.

If you’re looking for vintage timetables of your favourite airline, I doubt there’s a better place than the amazing Timetable Images.

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