Without Sir Freddie Laker, there might be no such thing as low-cost air travel. For that reason alone, travellers the world over were last night mourning the British airline entrepreneur, who fought mightily to break up the cartel of the world's most powerful air carriers only to be forced to admit defeat and slide into bankruptcy.
Sir Freddie, who was 83, died in Miami. For the past several years he had been living in the Caribbean, operating a local airline service from Freeport, in the Bahamas, and also dabbling in the internet, running a service provider called Laker Information Services out of southern Florida.
No further information was immediately available about this death, although his family said it was preparing a statement with more details.
The embodiment of British pluck - whether winning or losing - Sir Freddie won the admiration of Margaret Thatcher for his fearless championing of fully open markets. Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Airways owed more than a little to the Laker example, named one of his planes The Spirit of Sir Freddie in his honour. He was also one of a generation of British capitalists - Sir Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar were two others - who had a clear view of the technological future and only failed to make a bigger mark on it through bad luck and the exposure that comes of being one fish in a very large, piranha-infested pond.
Sir Freddie founded Laker Airways in the mid-1960s, but it took him 11 years of legal battles and intense government lobbying to bring his transatlantic Skytrain service into being. For £59 one way, or just over double that return, his passengers could fly from Gatwick to New York.
The service was, in Sir Freddie's words, "no frills" - although in these days of uncatered continental flights in the US and ever tighter seating there were still plenty of frills by contemporary standards. Most significantly, his service triggered a revolution by undercutting the prices on the big airlines by two-thirds.
Almost three million people rode the Skytrain between 1977, when it started, and 1982, when the receivers pulled the plug on Laker Airways, leaving passengers stranded halfway around the world. At the time his $260m in debts were called in, Sir Freddie was getting ready to take on the European Union arguing that failure to deregulate the European airways was a violation of the EU's rules on free-market competition.
He saw his business failure as the result of the same big-airline chicanery that had dogged him all along. They weathered tremendous losses to compete with his prices and steal away his passengers at a time when he was expanding aggressively. There were other reasons, too, for his bankruptcy - the sharp recession that kicked in on both sides of the Atlantic in 1981, and the poor publicity about the safety record of his signature aircraft, the DC-10.
Sir Freddie was, as it happened, an ardent early champion of the Airbus and was in the process of changing out his fleet when disaster struck.
Valiant efforts to revive the airline - including a £1m fund-raising operation orchestrated by his customers and a benefit concert by the Police, who had flown on his planes on their US tours - were unsuccessful, and Sir Freddie headed for semi-retirement in the Caribbean. (His local operation there, also called Laker Airways, folded last year.)
His achievement in breaking up the stranglehold the big airlines held over the market nevertheless endured.
Sir Richard Branson was only one entrepreneur who followed successfully in his footsteps. Companies like EasyJet and Ryan Air owe their existence to the breakthroughs he had achieved. Asked about his experience on the 25th anniversary of the first Skytrain flight a few years ago, Sir Freddie told the BBC he did not think his dream had been entirely fulfilled by his successors. "I think it's great they are still doing it and have produced low-fare operators," he said, "but if you think about this low fare operation in Europe and even the US, it's still on short-haul journeys. There's no one with a dedicated low fares operation across the Atlantic."Reuse content