Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Celebrate the Virgin birth of a global superstar
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The Independent Travel

Air Florida, PeopleXpress, Highland Express: two decades ago, these were three of the airlines striving to succeed the Laker Skytrain as the traveller's favourite way to cross the Atlantic.

Air Florida, PeopleXpress, Highland Express: two decades ago, these were three of the airlines striving to succeed the Laker Skytrain as the traveller's favourite way to cross the Atlantic.

In 1982, Sir Freddie Laker's mould-breaking airline went bust. Over the previous five years, his pioneering no-frills services from Gatwick to New York, Miami and Los Angeles had opened up America for several million British travellers. Transatlantic flights became affordable. Unfortunately for Sir Freddie, they became affordable not just on Laker Airways but on every airline flying from London to the US. British Airways, Pan Am and TWA miraculously discovered that they could cut their existing fares by roughly half to match the new arrival.

Many of the travelling public backed Laker as the underdog, but his airline suffered a series of financial blows. At the start of the summer season in 1979, all DC-10s - the type he used for transatlantic services - were grounded after several fatal crashes. A bout of rail strikes in Britain meant his flights from Gatwick were temporarily less accessible than those of his rivals' services from Heathrow, which is served by the Tube. But Sir Freddie is convinced that fare-cutting collusion among his competitors was responsible for his corporate demise. "What I was doing was revolutionary," he says. "They had to kill Freddie Laker." Happily, the entrepreneur is alive and well and living in Grand Bahama thanks to his £8m pay-off from British Airways.

Along came new airlines seeking to emulate the Laker Skytrain. One was Air Florida, with low-cost flights between Miami and Gatwick; indeed, Sir Freddie met the current Lady Laker on an Air Florida flight. The marriage has lasted a lot longer than the airline. PeopleXpress came next, an airline run on co-operative principles: pilots were expected to help at check-in. (Its other innovation was way ahead of its time: charging people extra for checking in baggage.) By the time I had saved up to fly on its Gatwick-Newark service, PeopleXpress had run out of cash and been taken over by the distinctly non-collective Continental Airlines. And Highland Express, which promised cheap flights from Stansted to Prestwick (an idea later picked up by Ryanair) and onwards to America never got off the ground.

Next up was a man whose familiarity with the airline industry was chiefly that of a passenger. "During the 1970s, what was offered in the air was an absolutely miserable experience," says Sir Richard Branson, "which was why we decided to get into the airline business and try to change things." And which is also why flying is a more civilised experience these days.

On 22 June 1984, the first Virgin Atlantic flight took off from Gatwick to Newark. Every space on the second-hand Boeing 747 was filled, including the eight luxury upper class seats in the upstairs "bubble". Standards for transatlantic travellers improved overnight. Sir Richard managed to create the impression that he was picking up where Laker left off with low fares, but in fact Virgin Atlantic has almost always competed on service, not price. Briefly, in 1988, the airline had a Ryanair moment - cutting low-season London-New York fares to £143 return at a time when the average was 50 per cent higher. But mostly its fares have followed the market.

A decade ago, when British Airways slashed transatlantic fares, Virgin very publicly undercut them - but stealthily added a £10 "security fee" that took its fares above BA's.

The ripples of the record tycoon's excursion into aviation, which began 20 years ago this week, have radiated wildly. Passengers' expectations have been raised even on routes that Virgin does not fly. Seat-back screens, which Virgin Atlantic introduced for every passenger, have become standard. Inflight meals are tastier. And while flying has long lost its glamour, long haul has become more tolerable since the Virgin birth.

Some innovations have not come to pass. Virgin Atlantic's plans for an all-business-class plane - named Jet Set - remain firmly on the drawing board. The airline's acquisition of the double-decker Airbus A380 has been deferred, so we are no closer to knowing if private double bedrooms will be on board.

Branson's attempts to fly Concorde were thwarted, and with the cancellation of Boeing's plans for a Sonic Cruiser - a premium aircraft intended to fly very close to the speed of sound - there seems no alternative to the seven-hour haul to New York for the foreseeable future.

JUST WHAT WE DON'T NEED - MORE FLIGHTS TO OZ

Without doubt, Virgin Atlantic has dramatically enhanced air travel. But the airline's future expansion does not look as useful as it might for the prospective passenger. Sir Richard Branson is keen to start flying from London to Sydney - which is exactly what the British traveller does not need. Already, competition between the UK and Australia verges on the absurd: a dozen high-class airlines (plus a few second-division carriers) will fly you Down Under for as little as £500 return.

What none of them will do is take you there non-stop. A straight-through link to Australia "is certainly possible", says Sir Richard. The obvious non-stop gateway is the city of Perth, where travellers could connect with the expanding Virgin Blue network of no-frills flights. But the Virgin boss says "it is economically unlikely to happen". Instead, his flights will operate from Heathrow to Hong Kong and on to Sydney, duplicating services already available on Cathay Pacific and the BA/Qantas partnership.

Plenty of other destinations worldwide have no direct links from the UK. Virgin Atlantic could have lots of routes to itself: Quito and Lima in South America; New Orleans and San Diego in the US; Hanoi and Manila in Asia. If Virgin can fly to Port Harcourt in Nigeria, it should be able to select some better destinations to celebrate its coming of age.

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