'Fly me' folk hero set to take to skies again; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Sir Freddie Laker

13 years after Laker Airways nose-dived into oblivion, its founder is still bitter and plotting reincarnation on a Europe-Florida run
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The Independent Online
Sir Freddie Laker's personal assistant had told me to look out for a Rolls Royce, though she was not sure which of the two he keeps in Florida he would be driving. "It will be either blue or white," she said. But when he turned up outside my hotel at the agreed time he was in neither. Instead, he was behind the wheel of a low-slung gold Nissan sports car of uncertain vintage.

He pushed open the passenger door and greeted me with that old fly-me grin. Before long, we were heading south from Fort Lauderdale towards Miami on an interstate that Sir Freddie hopes will soon be buzzing with British tourists - on fly-drive packages to Florida courtesy of himself. For the former pioneer of cheap trans-Atlantic travel and folk-hero entrepreneur is about to take a flying leap over the pond once again.

On 28 March next year, all being well, Sir Freddie will take off triumphantly from Gatwick Airport, his old base, aboard a newly refurbished DC10 airliner, his still-famous name printed in eight-foot letters down each side. The plane will be one of three of the wide-bodied jets with which he intends to launch a reincarnated Laker Airways, shuttling package tourists from Britain, Germany and possibly also Italy to southern Florida.

Throughout our day together - in his doctor's surgery, in an aircraft maintainence hangar and in his offices on the edge of Fort Lauderdale airport - we nattered about his prospective comeback. Aged 73 and recently recovered from a scrape with prostate cancer, he still has the fizz and enthusiasm of someone much younger. And only occasionally did he allow the conversation to turn back to darker times and to his former nemesis, Lord King. It has been 13 years since the original Laker Airways, which in the late Seventies and early Eighties introduced thousands of Britons to cheap trans-Atlantic flying with the Skytrain service, came unglued. After a period of rapid and buccaneering expansion into the fifth largest carrier between Britain and North America, Skytrain collapsed in 1982.

"It should never have happened. The airline should never have stopped running," says Sir Freddie, who today still complains that he was illegally driven out of business by other airlines colluding to slash prices. His liquidator launched a lawsuit in the United States against British Airways and eight other carriers. In 1985, they finally settled out of court and gave Sir Freddie a peace offering of $8m (pounds 5m).

Sir Freddie claims he does not harbour any bitterness over the affair. "The trouble about being bitter is that you don't come to the right decisions," he says. But on this he not terribly convincing. He says, almost in the same breath, that it was a "giant conspiracy" . "I was screwed out of my mind. They thought it was fair to break the law. They broke the law. And the Government was in it up to the eyeballs."

Lord King, he implies, got his just deserts when he was ousted after BA was found guilty of dirty tricks against Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic. "Why do you think he had to leave? He left in disgrace."

So after the vindication of the settlement why didn't he revive the old Laker? "Because I was virtually shut out in everything I wanted to do. By the time we got to 1985, there was no way I could put Humpty Dumpty together again. It was obvious that the Government didn't want me in the aviation business in England and I had been aviation since I was 16."

By then he had already established new homes in Miami and in the Bahamas, where he acted as a consultant to the Princess resort hotels - owned then and now by his long-time friend, Tiny Rowland.

Soon, he was testing his wings again, flying guests from the American mainland to the hotels, at first by leasing aircraft from other carriers. In 1992, however, he and a group of partners, including Oscar Wyatt, the multi-millionaire founder of the giant oil and gas conglomerate, Coast Corporation, founded Laker Airways (Bahamas) Ltd to do the job themselves. The mini-carrier, he says, has no debt and "makes a profit every day".

It was one of that operation's two Boeing 727 airliners that took us to the maintenance hangar on the edge of Miami's International Airport. The 19-year-old plane was undergoing a mandatory strip-down and not looking its best.

After checking first that the supervisor was watching the time sheets - Sir Freddie is evidently scrupulous about what he spends - he toured the machine. He was enraged to find the interior a shambles, with seat rows in piles and dirty escape doors lying on new carpeting. "They have no soul," he said later, vowing to use a different company next time.

From there we went to the Laker offices at Fort Lauderdale airport, where all activity was directed at the new trans-Atlantic venture. Waiting in Sir Freddie's suite, festooned with old Skytrain memorabilia, were artist's drawings of how the new DC10s might look.

The black-and-red livery is the same as on the original Laker planes, minus the star-spangled Skytrain insignia. He ordered that the lettering of Laker be made a bit taller, concluding that the version with the initials 'LA' intertwined on the tail looked ugly and should be ditched. The old Laker bird will go there instead.

The new airline will be a partnership between his oilman friend, Mr Wyatt, and himself. They will hold 51 per cent and 49 per cent of the company respectively, but to comply with US foreign-ownership rules, Sir Freddie will only have 25 per cent of the voting rights.

Both are putting up the capital personally, without recourse to loans. But when asked what the sums actually were, Sir Freddie was suddenly coy. The three aircraft, meanwhile, have been leased on an eight-year contract from General Electric's leasing arm and are currently being refurbished in North Carolina.

The DC10s are the same aircraft used for Skytrain - Laker was the first airline outside the US to buy them - but that is where the similarity with the old, dead-cheap but bring-your-own-food service will end. Sir Freddie hopes that his new carrier will eventually have full scheduled routes, but in the meantime he expects package operators in Britain and Europe to fill his planes.

In Britain, TransAtlantic Vacations has already begun printed brochures featuring Laker flights. And the sales pitch is not rock-bottom fares, but "superior cabin service". Every seat, for example, will have individual state-of-the-art video units, a first for a charter carrier.

"It is a saying in racing that you must come in first, it's no good being second. I was first with Skytrain, but this time I'm not even second, I'm last," Sir Freddie said. "But I believe that in being last I can also become first again. I can take advantage of all the new technologies that those already out there have not had access to.We're busy thinking up ideas for enhanced service."

The planes will be based at Gatwick, Manchester and Fort Lauderdale. In a nice irony, Sir Freddie expects to offer the maintainence contract for his fleet to BA. "It's a different airline from what is was under Lord King," he chuckles. "And you don't have to sleep with them."

Sir Freddie's optimism is based on the premise that travel from Europe, including eastern Europe, to southern Florida is set to boom. He and Mr Wyatt, widely seen as an astute investor, calculate that from next year, package operators would have been facing a shortage of seats, particularly on wide-bodied, multi-engined aircraft capable of making the journey non- stop.

Isn't Sir Freddie risking being shot down all over again? He thinks not. It might help that one of those he will be competing with on the Florida run will be Mr Branson himself, a close friend and the one man in British aviation for whom Sir Freddie expresses unalloyed admiration.

But he does not imagine that other airlines, including BA, could feel threatened by a small-fry, three-plane operation like his will be. But just in case they are, he warns: "They wouldn't get past the doorstep before being sued."

The new Laker Airways may not be small for ever. Sir Freddie admits to a fond hope that his 17-year-old son, also Freddie, might one day take it over. And he points to the potential for expansion.

"It's an American airline that won't be limited in scope in the way that British carriers are. I've got 250 million Americans as my [potential] customers. And we've got a place called Honolulu in Hawaii and Canada and South America."

Sir Freddie is getting a bit ahead of himself here. In my mind, I flash back to an American television commercial featuring the man himself on board one of his planes, which was filmed just before the demise of Skytrain.

With that same, unabashed Laker grin, he turns to the camera and asks: "Are you ready... for Sir Freddie?" Are we? Again?