100 Years of Aviation Law at Clyde & Co

  • Market Insight 05 February 2024 05 February 2024
  • UK & Europe

  • Aviation & Aerospace

As we enter 2024, it is appropriate for Clyde & Co to reflect on the milestone of 100 years of aviation law. Through its merger with Beaumont & Son in 2005, whose name is preserved in our Rio aviation practice, Clyde & Co has a rich aviation law heritage we can trace back to the dawn of commercial aviation in 1924, with its personnel playing a key part in legal developments of international aviation law.

Major Beaumont

One of the key characters in the story of aviation law at Clyde & Co is Major Kenneth Beaumont C.B.E., D.S.O, senior partner of the aviation firm Beaumont & Son. 

Major Beaumont was born in February 1884 and qualified as a solicitor in 1910. The Major had a notable war record in the First World War, earning a Distinguished Service Order and mentions in dispatches in the Middle East. 

The Major also had many interests outside aviation, representing Great Britain in figure skating in the 1920 Olympics and serving as President of the Royal Philatelic (stamp collecting) Society of London. Interestingly, he was also the first owner of a Rolls Royce of some repute, being the car used at the wedding of the son of British Prime Minister Clement Atlee.

As Senior Partner of Beaumont & Son, Major Beaumont became a widely recognised international authority on the law governing the use of the air. As Lord Wilberforce later noted, Beaumont & son came to be consulted on almost every matter of importance in relation to air law, and his firm acquired a unique store of practical knowledge and expertise that endures to this day. The Major passed away in April 1965 at the age of 81.

The Beaumont Lectures began in 1967 and continued to feature over the years in association with the Royal Aeronautical Society, paying tribute to the man and his legacy and the “Beaumont conferences” will be returning in 2024 in the form of the Clyde & Co International Aviation and Aerospace conference series. 

The Imperial Airways years

Major Beaumont’s early legal career was following a conventional commercial law trajectory until circumstances brought him into contact with Imperial Airways, the inter war British airline and an important predecessor to British Airways in the UK’s aviation history.

Founded in 1924, Imperial Airways was the UK’s first long-haul airline, flying routes to Europe, Asia and Africa. The airline’s first route was from Croydon to Paris, in a De Havilland 34 Aircraft. It then expanded to the continent, with services including Amsterdam, Brussels, Zurich, Cologne and Guernsey.

Major Beaumont recalled his first commercial flight as a passenger on 28th April 1924 having been given a last-minute ticket by his friend George Wood-Humphrey, who had recently become General Manager of Imperial Airways, as his original flight to France was cancelled due to a pilot strike. One of the pilots had decided to break the strike and offered to fly Major Beaumont as the sole passenger. The single air fare cost £25 and the 200 mile journey would take two hours. 

The Major would say this was the most alarming flight he had ever experienced, passing through continuous thunderstorms with the wicker chairs and luggage flying around the passenger cabin and no means of communication between cabin and pilot. This experience did not prevent the Major from learning to fly himself, becoming the first man to obtain a pilot’s licence with the Six Light Aeroplane Club the following year.

On 24th December 1924, Imperial Airways sustained its first serious accident. A DH 34 aircraft G-EBBY crashed on take-off at Croydon, tragically killing all 8 people aboard. This was an international flight bound for Paris, with passengers from Britain, Chile and Brazil. The Napier Lion engine stalled as a result of overheating, and an inquest was arranged to be held after the Christmas holidays. Major Beaumont was asked to make the necessary legal arrangements for the inquest by George Woods Humphrey. Mr Woods Humphrey suggested that it might be a good idea for Major Beaumont to study air law and act as technical advisor to the company since the company’s usual lawyers were unlikely to be interested in the technicalities of air law. Major Beaumont was interested. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

The Major was subsequently invited to attend Management Meetings at Imperial Airways, from which he gained valuable experience about the operation of an international airline.

World War Two

The outbreak of WWII in 1939 had a significant impact on the aviation industry with the UK military taking control of many airfields and commercial fights becoming rare. Imperial Airways was ultimately taken into Government ownership, merging with British Airways to become the new state owned British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1939.

During WWII the Major stayed at home to look after what work remained in the legal practice over these lean years in commercial aviation while his partners left for military service, one losing his life in the war. 

The Warsaw, Hague and Montreal Conventions

Major Beaumont was in the delegation that attended the Warsaw Convention of 1929, a milestone moment in aviation law on carrier liability. His official role was as advisor for the International Air Traffic Association1 (I.A.T.A.). The Major was instrumental in persuading the delegation not to schedule standard form of tickets, baggage checks and consignment notes to the Convention itself, preferring to allow IATA more control over the form of these documents. The UK adopted the Warsaw Convention through the Carriage by Air Act 1932.

Major Beaumont was a member of the IATA committee for 21 years and attended the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Assembly in 1947 as well as meetings of the Legal Commission where he acted as chairman. The Major came to be recognised as an eminent authority on the Warsaw Convention itself and author of the monumental work Shawcross & Beaumont’s Air Law, first published in 1947 and still the definitive tome on Air Law.

Major Beaumont took part in the Legal Committee meeting in Rio to adopt the Hague Protocol of 1955, which was designed to amend the Warsaw Convention of 1929. Major Beaumont had high hopes that a new framework could be implemented to correct the defects in the Warsaw Convention exposed over the preceding decades, but in the end a new convention on carrier liability was not adopted until the signing of the Montreal Convention in 1999.

Clyde & Co has continued the tradition of Major Beaumont, advising on major losses and passenger claims ranging from the Lockerbie and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Malaysian Airlines disasters and the 737 Max crash in Ethiopia in 2019. 

We have a network of experienced lawyers in our offices across the globe assisting our clients with the opportunities and challenges of this dynamic industry and are widely acknowledged as the world’s premier aviation law firm, regularly contributing to the development of aviation law and regulation, as well as being at the forefront of legal practice in the space and satellite insurance market.

The legacy of Air Law at Clyde & Co is particularly worthy of note in this centenary year, and it is perhaps appropriate to leave the last word to the Major as he wrote in his 80th birthday recollections: 

“I have tried, with moderate success, to live up to the motto of my family crest (“seek a sure end”) and this exhortation in the Gymnasium at Harrow: “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”

1Now called the International Air Transport Association


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