Turning tail on a multimillion-dollar redesign begun just two years ago, British Airways has decided to bring back the Union Jack.

Robert Ayling, chief executive of the world's biggest passenger airline, announced that British Air will drop the controversial "rebranding" campaign in which it replaced the British flag symbol on the tail fins of its jetliners with an array of ethnic designs from around the world.

Now, British Air plans to put a wavy red-white-and-blue insignia based on the British Union Jack flag on the tail of each newly delivered or repainted plane. Within two years, the carrier said, about half of its 340-plane fleet will bear the national colors again. The remaining jets will keep the ethnic designs they have now.

In essence, the biggest British carrier has concluded that there is, after all, a place for flag-waving in the intensely competitive long-haul air passenger business.

It's a business that has not been good to British Air lately. Plagued by a glut of transatlantic seats, declining Asia traffic and a swarming host of low-cost competitors in Europe, the airline announced last month that its annual profit fell 61 percent from a year earlier.

This was hardly what Ayling had in mind in 1997 when he announced, with great hoopla, that he planned to spend about $100 million on a rebranding campaign. To make British Airways less overtly British, the airline began removing the national colors from its planes and decorating instead with designs from around the world. On the world's tarmacs today you can see British Air tail fins bearing Maori tattoo designs, Japanese calligraphy, Delft pottery patterns and other markings.

The airline boasted that this move won it friends among foreign fliers. But 40 percent of British Air's customers are British. It has been no secret that the British -- particularly the upper-income travelers who buy those lucrative business-class tickets -- were not amused by the new scheme.

When British Air showed off a model of its global designs at a national convention of the Conservative Party, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher pronounced the idea "awful" and unfolded a silk handkerchief to cover the offending fin. Polling and focus groups showed that Thatcher spoke for many -- especially among middle-class and older travelers.

Ayling told the BBC on Sunday that he has concluded that his ambitious rebranding idea was "50 percent wrong." He said the global-design tail fins were "fantastically popular" with some fliers but had flopped among the core customer base at home.

In 1996, the last year for which data are available, the International Air Transport Association ranked British Airways the world's busiest airline in number of scheduled passengers carried. British Air was followed by Lufthansa, American Airlines, Air France and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

British Air said its reversal was announced this weekend because the airline has to tell Boeing Co. and Airbus Industrie how to paint new planes that are about to be delivered.

But the airline's nemesis, Richard Branson, had a different explanation. Branson expanded his chain of record stores, Virgin Music, into a global airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and has been battling British Airways for years. When British Air dropped the national colors in 1997, Branson claimed that his line -- with a fleet of 25 jets -- had become "Britain's flag carrier."

Today, Branson announced that Virgin would paint more and bigger British flags on its planes. He insisted that the weekend announcement by British Airways had been timed to beat Virgin Atlantic to the punch.

CAPTION: Changing Course (This graphic was not available)

CAPTION: British Airways commissioned artists from around the world to decorate its planes' tail fins.