Sir Freddie Laker, who died in Miami yesterday aged 83, is remembered by the aviation community throughout the world for his entrepreneurial acumen, his flamboyant charm, but most of all for being the “people’s champion”.
He took on the incumbent flag-carriers across the Atlantic, and although he ultimately failed, for a time he made cheap air travel available to many and sowed the seeds for today’s low-fare revolution. Born on 6 August 1922 in Kent, Frederick Alfred Laker began his career with Short Brothers at Rochester in 1938 and aviation remained his first love throughout his life. He became a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary team during World War II and made his fortune supplying cargo aircraft for use in the Berlin airlift in 1948.
Sir Freddie considered that period as “the best piece of luck I’ve ever had”. But luck was only part of the equation that created a legend. He also had an abundance of determination to succeed. Through the 1950s, he continued trading in aircraft, before joining British United Airways (BUA) in 1960. Disillusionment with the highly-regulated airline industry prompted him to start his own airline, Laker Airways, in February 1966.
Freddie was always committed to the concept of a low-fares, no-frills service, but had to battle against the entrenched interests and bullying tactics of the established airlines. This he finally won in 1977 when he obtained permission for his transatlantic Skytrain service, offering fares one-third those of other airlines. On 26 September 1977, the Laker Airways McDonnell Douglas DC-10 left London Gatwick airport on the first Skytrain service for New York Kennedy (pictured below).
The public loved the new service and a knighthood soon followed. But for Sir Freddie, his troubles were only just beginning and in February 1982, Laker Airways collapsed with debts of more than £250 million. He sued 12 airlines for predatory pricing, and won, but a bad choice of aircraft and the coincidental recession in the UK at the time also contributed to the airline’s demise. Sir Freddie turned his back on the UK and started a new airline in the Bahamas, but his heyday had gone forever.
He will be remembered however, as a big man who took on big business, but it was a bitter-sweet victory.
GÜNTER ENDRES / LONDON
Read our story on the first SkyTrain flight from the 27 September 1977 edition of Flight International
View the BBC News site from 5 February 1982, the day Laker Airways went bankrupt
Visit the unofficial Laker Aiways web site, run by previous crew