January 2016

Duncan Bluck, CBE
1927 - 2015

Duncan Bluck, who has died in his 88th year, played a central role in the transformation of Cathay Pacific Airways from a small regional carrier into a fully-fledged international airline.

Born in Shanghai, where his father was manager of the exclusive department store, Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co., Duncan Bluck was sent to boarding school in England in 1939, just days before the outbreak of World War II; his parents were later interned in Shanghai. In 1944, at the age of 17?, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, seeing service in the Mediterranean and Far East.

After demobilisation in 1947, Bluck found post-war Britain a drab and austere place and applied to a number of companies with Far Eastern interests, including Swire. He was interviewed in London by J.K. Swire early in 1948 and flew out to Hong Kong by Sunderland flying boat soon afterwards. He spent the next five years in shipping – mostly in Japan, which was then still under military occupation.

On his first “Home” leave, Bluck got engaged and he and Stella were married in March 1952; thereafter, she became a strong support to him in his many official roles and together they were well-known for their hospitality and kindness especially to more junior staff, in whom Bluck would show genuine interest and by whom he was very ready to be amused.

In 1953 came a career-changing move, when Bluck was sent to Bangkok to open a new Cathay Pacific office – the airline’s first outport. At the time, the fleet consisted of just two DC-3s and one DC-4 Skymaster (registration VR-HEU). The latter aircraft operated a punishing schedule, flying Hong Kong-Bangkok-Singapore five times a week, as well as a weekly flight Hong Kong-Bangkok-Calcutta – causing a local travel agent to ask in all innocence why Cathay had “HEU” on all its aircraft.

In 1954, at the age of only 27, Bluck returned to Hong Kong to take up the post of Cathay Pacific Commercial Manager – then the most senior post outside engineering in the airline’s hierarchy. One of the first successes of Bluck’s regime was the acquisition of northbound routes out of Hong Kong. Soon after the war, the Government had allocated traffic rights for the southbound air routes to Cathay Pacific and awarded the northbound ones – to Mainland China, Taiwan and Japan – to Hong Kong Airways (“HKA”), a subsidiary of British Overseas Airways Corporation (“BOAC”). In 1955, however, with the loss of its Mainland market, HKA sold its fleet and chartered-out its traffic rights to the US carrier, Northwest, which operated a service from the States to Taiwan, and was thus able to extend its service down to Hong Kong.

His earlier stint in Japan had given Bluck an insight into that country’s huge potential and he recognised it would become the powerhouse of Asia. He therefore appealed to the Government to surrender northbound rights to Cathay Pacific, unless HKA flew its own planes. After a half-hearted attempt to recreate the airline, BOAC swapped HKA for a parcel of Cathay Pacific shares in 1959 and – as Bluck had predicted – the Japan and Taiwan markets began to take off.

In 1962, Cathay Pacific acquired its first jet aircraft, the Convair 880M, and soon afterwards, formed a joint venture air catering company with the Peninsula Group. The Peninsula was already catering for Swissair – for whom Swire was agent – and Bluck wanted to get Cathay’s catering onto the same professional footing. The partnership provided the impetus to take on catering for other airlines and led to the eventual development of Cathay Pacific Catering Services. Duncan Bluck joined the Board of Cathay Pacific Airways in April 1964.

In 1968, Bluck was posted to Nassau, to take over as Chairman of Bahamas Airways, which Swire in conjunction with P&O and Blue Funnel had acquired from BOAC. He remained there for two years, but despite many successful innovations to the airline the experiment was not a success financially, due above all the Bahamian Government’s failure to honour the clear understanding that it would exclusively licence BAL (as the national carrier) to fly long-haul routes. In the end, Swire was forced to put the airline into voluntary liquidation.

Bluck returned to Hong Kong in January 1971 as Managing Director of Cathay Pacific in time to herald the arrival of the airline’s first long-haul Boeing 707s in 1973 and then in 1975, its first wide-bodied aircraft, the Lockheed TriStar. The introduction of these aircraft enabled Cathay to expand its route network substantially and in 1976, the airline began flying to Bahrain, its first big expansion west. For Duncan Bluck, the move was a crucial stepping stone on the way to London.

ducan.pngThe London route was Duncan Bluck’s Holy Grail. Up to this time, British Airways had operated the route as a monopoly, but in 1980, Cathay Pacific – which was equipping with Boeing 747 aircraft – launched a challenge in conjunction with British Caledonian Airways (“B-Cal”) and low-cost carrier, Laker Airways. After a series of acrimonious hearings before Hong Kong’s Air Transport Licensing Authority, licences were granted to Cathay Pacific and B-Cal. But in a move that outraged the Hong Kong public, the CAA in London revoked Cathay’s licence, on the basis that the DC-10 – B-Cal’s choice – was a more suitable aircraft to operate the route. Swire immediately appealed to the UK Minister of Trade, who eventually licenced all three carriers as a political compromise. Receiving the news overnight, Bluck and his team in Hong Kong were ready: when the shutters went up on the ticketing offices the following morning, huge banners proclaimed the message “Cathay Pacific flies to London!”

It was a decisive victory for the airline: within a year, the Hong Kong-London service had become a daily one and with Cathay’s first trans-Pacific flight, non-stop to Vancouver in 1983, paved the way to new European and US West coast destinations through the 1980s.

On 1st January 1981, at the age of 53, Bluck was appointed to the role of Chairman of Swire’s interests in Hong Kong. His taipan-ship included a period of substantial expansion for Swire Pacific, particularly in the Property Division. He also held a number of respected public roles, including Chairman of the Hong Kong Tourist Association and board member and finance committee member of the University of Hong Kong; he was appointed OBE in 1984.

In April 1984, Duncan Bluck retired from the East and joined the parent Board of JS&S in London. In this capacity, he remained heavily involved with Cathay Pacific and Swire Pacific’s interests over the next 14 years, and in addition, took on outside responsibilities as Chairman of the British Tourist Authority and Chairman of the English Tourist Board; he was appointed CBE in 1990. He was also for many years Chairman, and latterly President, of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. He retired from the Swire group at the end of June 1998, after a career spanning more than 50 years.

Upon hearing of Duncan Bluck’s passing, James Hughes-Hallett recently wrote that “…he has always seemed invincible all his life and even during the latter years of having to struggle with illness he has appeared as with-it and with as ramrod straight a back as ever. He really was a giant in Swires and gave such a clear example of dedication, determination and attention to detail. When I joined the company in 1976 he had a reputation for absolute focus on the goal and not suffering fools too lightly…he was greatly respected within the company, perhaps by the Chinese staff in particular who admired his perfectionism and fairness of treatment, and in the broader Hong Kong community of which he was an important pillar and a much admired taipan…”.

Duncan Bluck died peacefully, surrounded by his family, on 6th October 2015, after a long illness bravely borne. He is survived by his wife Stella and their children Penny, Beth, Ali and Michael.

Swire Intra-group Running Competition 2015
Swire Intra-group Running Competition 2015
Memorable Night at Ocean Park
Memorable Night at Ocean Park
Promotions, Transfers & Title Changes
Long Service
Obituary - Duncan Bluck
Obituary - Chris Ryder
SwireNews - Jan 2016
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