Sir Freddie Laker

Champion of 'the forgotten man' who fought the established airlines to bring low-budget air travel to all


Frederick Alfred Laker, businessman: born Canterbury, Kent 6 August 1922; managing director, British United Airways 1960-65; chairman and managing director, Laker Airways Ltd 1966-82; Kt 1978; director, Freddie Laker's Skytrain Ltd 1982-83; chairman and managing director, Laker Airways (Bahamas) Ltd 1992-2006; partner, Laker Airways Inc 1995-98; four times married (one son, one daughter, and two sons deceased); died Miami, Florida 9 February 2006.

Freddie Laker was an archetypal capitalist hero; innovative, adventurous, determined and resilient. As much as, if not more than, anyone else in the UK in the last 50 years, he redefined air transport for the benefit of ordinary people, contributing hugely to the development of cheap holiday flights and striking the first blow at over-priced scheduled air fares with the launch of Skytrain in September 1977.

Skytrain's first flight from Gatwick to New York was the climax of Laker's career. Five years later the world's first cut-price transatlantic airline was bankrupt and, a quarter of a century on, its founder is perhaps best remembered for his legal battle to prove that his company was the victim of a conspiracy between the major British and American airlines to force Laker Airways out of business by "predatory pricing" (selling their own fares at a loss) so that they could revert to their bad old habit of fixing the price of airline seats to the United States much higher. Laker sued and eventually won a legal victory which paved the way for the success of Virgin Airways and other low-fare initiatives.

Although revenge was sweet, it still left Laker as just another British entrepreneur broken on the wheel of Big Business. In the years since, Laker had been doing little of note, if you discount starting a couple of airlines serving the Florida holiday market, with a little help from friends like the late "Tiny" Rowland and the US oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt, as well as doggedly bludgeoning British Airways and its cronies through the courts until they bled millions of dollars in compensation for their naughty ways.

All this, however, was just an epilogue to Freddie Laker's UK business career. Born in Canterbury in 1922, Laker made up his mind that he wanted to be in the aircraft industry at the age of 14, when he started training as an engineer at Short Brothers, which built flying boats near Rochester. During the Second World War he became a flight engineer in the Air Transport Auxiliary, learning to maintain and fly every make of aircraft used by the RAF from Airocobras to Yorks, becoming familiar with the airfields of Europe and beyond, and discovering the techniques of carrying cargoes of every kind. After the war, he set up his first business, Aviation Traders, dealing in aircraft spares and much else out of the boot of an old car.

Laker's big break came in 1948, when an early believer in the big, brash, sharp-thinking 26-year-old lent him £38,000 towards the £42,000 cost of a dozen civilian versions of the Halifax bomber on sale from British Overseas Airways Corporation, plus all their spares. Within weeks, the Russians imposed a total blockade on all traffic into Berlin. The Allies responded with the Berlin airlift. By the following May, when the Soviet Union finally admitted defeat, Laker's planes had flown 2,577 round-trips into Berlin, carrying 17,000 tons of supplies, and Aviation Traders was the biggest operator at Southend airport, with nearly 400 employees.

Two years later a growing flood of refugees into Berlin gave Laker another lucrative opportunity. By the end of 1952, Air Charter was the dominant independent airline on the Berlin run, with a sideline in trooping contracts to Suez canal zone. And in 1955 Laker started his first scheduled service, the Channel Air Bridge, shuttling up to 15,000 cars and their passengers a year between Southend and Calais, using converted Bristol freighters. Other ventures took Laker's growing fleet, which by then included Britannias and DC4s, down the west coast of Africa.

By then, too, Laker was nouveau riche, with a Rolls-Royce, a new house overlooking the RAC's golf course at Epsom, in Surrey, and a string of race horses. But he was already frustrated by his inability to gain entry into mainstream aviation, controlled by state-owned BEA and BOAC (since merged as British Airways). So in 1958 he sold Air Charter and Aviation Traders for £800,000 (perhaps £20m today) to a group called Airwork, soon renamed British United Airways as it scooped up other independents with the encouragement of Duncan Sandys, the Tory Minister of Aviation.

Laker was made managing director of BUA. As such, he moved swiftly to apply for licences for more than 20 new routes offered under the 1960 Civil Aviation Act, ordering 10 BAC 1-11s, still on the drawing board, and four VC10s, Britain's new rival to Boeing's 707, at a total cost of nearly £20m, to fly them. The new fleet made BUA half the size of British European Airways. In spite of BEA's objections, BUA was awarded a dozen European routes and at the end of 1964 snapped up BOAC's routes to South America, when the Tory government refused the state-owned airline a subsidy. Laker barnstormed one of his new VC10s across Latin America with the Duke of Edinburgh among his passengers, and by 1967 BUA was making a profit out of its new business.

By then, though, Laker had quit BUA, in part because he could no longer take being subordinate to his chairman, Sir Myles Wyatt, an older "prime male " who lacked Laker's intimate knowledge of the aviation industry but controlled BUA's shareholders. The second half of 1965 was a sad time for Laker as he tried to come to terms with the death of his first son, Kevin, who had killed himself in the sports car his father had given him for his 17th birthday. But the tragedy did not stop Laker pursuing plans to start his own airline.

Laker Airways was launched in February 1966 as a "contract carrier" to the package holiday trade. It was a new concept, requiring tour operators to guarantee to fill Laker Airways' planes for an entire season, in return for cheap rates. The first holiday company to take the plunge was Wings, an offshoot of the Ramblers Association. Demand for package holidays was growing at an astonishing rate and Laker Airways flourished, in spite of cut-throat competition. Laker protected his slender profit margins by running his small fleet immaculately. "I have my name on the side of this plane," he told passengers. "It has got to do well." They loved it. He meant it.

In 1969 he bought two Boeing 707s and hired a lanky Philadelphian lawyer called Bob Beckman to obtain a licence for charter flights across the Atlantic. Pioneered by Caledonian Airways, these were booming, as their fares were dramatically cheaper than on scheduled flights. But passengers had to belong to so-called "affinity groups".

Many were genuine, such as Caledonian's "Paisley Buddies", huge groups of Glasgow mums and grannies visiting their offspring. But many were created purely for cheap travel. By 1970, the Civil Aviation Bureau in the States was convinced that all but a few were being misused. When the Department of Trade raided one of Laker's flights in 1971, it found a third of a group calling itself the US Left Hand Club was not bona fide.

Laker was outraged at being harassed for something he could not control, but when he calmed down he called a meeting of his top management to discuss how they could break out of the trap. "What we want," he told them, "is something simple, like a train." Six weeks later, he lodged an application with the Air Transport Licensing Board for a no-booking, walk-on scheduled service across the Atlantic at fares of £32.50 each way in the winter and £37.50 in the summer. The battle for Skytrain had begun.

It took him six years to win. The major airlines did everything in their power to thwart this threat to their price cartel, and their intransigence was tacitly supported by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. But Laker refused to give up his fight on behalf of "the forgotten man" , the millions of ordinary working people and their families who were excluded by high fares from scheduled air travel.

Of course he was self-interested, but he was also right. It would be easy to denigrate Laker's moral indignation at what he presented as a conspiracy against the rights of the common man as self-serving, but that would be to ignore the determination with which he pursued his aims, regardless of the potential cost. And, regardless of his motives, 'twas a famous victory.

Freddie Laker was rewarded in 1978 with a knighthood, given to him by a Labour government which he had spent so long reviling for failing to support him. He saw the honour as a complete vindication and proceeded to embark on ever more ambitious plans to expand Skytrain around the world, ordering not one but two fleets of planes to support them. He always denied that these commitments undermined his airline's ability to survive the price war against it launched by the majors in the early 1980s. But perhaps it was in his nature to over-reach himself. That's what heroes do.

Berry Ritchie

"Mr Laker is a man of enterprise." So Lord Denning began the Court of Appeal judgement on the famous Skytrain case. And from that first sentence, rolled round the court with his Hampshire burr, we (the Government) knew we were down, writes Patrick Shovelton.

Edmund Dell, our then Secretary of State at the Department of Trade, decided not to appeal to the Lords. In the event we grafted Laker nicely into the Bermuda II negotiations (the revised Air Services Agreement with the US). In return for getting Freddie into New York (Newark), we allowed Pan-Am and TWA to continue into Heathrow.

It was only during this period - 1976-78 - that I knew Freddie well. He was great fun - a rumbustious, buccaneering fellow with a good sense of humour and certainly a man of enterprise. He told my wife that he first made his money with the Berlin airlift return flights - filling up the empty seats with strapped-in dead bodies. And his wife of the time was so pleased with his getting a knighthood - Labour's final hommage (and 180-degree U-turn) to the Skytrain story - that she wore the insignia on her nightdress. Freddie, like some other airline buccaneers, also had an eye for detail. A special - or indeed a not-so-special - passenger would be greeted with a bottle of champagne or two.

I had not seen him since 1978 but I gather he was the life and soul of the party in the Bahamas and full of ideas right up to his death.

Freddie Laker was sometimes called the good face of capitalism, writes Frank Gray. He had the common touch ­ an infectious grin and a pugnacious simplicity.

An enduring memory for me is a visit to his fifth floor office at the Skytrain hangar at Gatwick, accessible only by foot as there was no lift. Laker arrived in an unwashed white Rolls-Royce with a hub-cap missing, and after bounding up the staircase proceeded to inveigh against his enemies, at the same time never once descending into expletives, and skilfully ducking the salient questions.

"You can ask me all you want to about bankers," he said,

and I will tell you only that we have more than we do aircraft . . . I won't tell you any more because, when you do that, your competitors start getting in on the act. They love to know where you get your money.

Asked if there was any special financing involved in his Airbus A-300 purchase or any direct help from the French government, he became colourfully vehement:

The biggest disaster in my life would be for any government to help me. When governments help you they usually put strings attached, such as taxes, and I don't want any government to help me. I am quite content to rely on the law to help me, the law of England, of France, of America. Don't ask me to get wedded to a government ­ any government.

Your obituary states that the Duke of Edinburgh was a passenger on a British United Airways VC10 demonstration flight round South America led by Laker. I travelled on this enterprising journey in 1964 (following a similar BUA effort throughout Africa), writes Stuart Hulse, and can assure you that Prince Philip did not attend ­ the most "notable" guest was one of the Vestey family eager to seek more meat profits in Argentina!

Your article failed to record that at BUA Laker introduced the world's first commercial hovercraft service, devised the first city-centre rail/air terminal and was the architect of the British-built BAC 1-11, the first "bus-stop" jet.

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