THE PLACE THAT CHANGED ME

The founder of easyJet recalls his life-transforming encounter with Luton airport
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The Independent Travel
STELIOS HAJI-IOANNOU

The place that changed me? It has to be Luton. If I hadn't found Luton, easyJet would probably have flown out of Athens or Gatwick or some such place, with high costs, and I would have become bankrupt within three months.

I got into the airline industry by flying between London and Athens all the time on airlines that were running out of capital and looking for investors. (I also used to think: "Shit! If I buy an airline I won't have to buy a ticket anymore!")

But my initial ideas were still very mainstream, and my heart still told me I should do it in Greece. Except that when I looked at the business plan, I realised it was impossible. The next opportunity was London. I spoke English of course, and I felt comfortable there. I also already had a shipping company office there, in Mayfair of all places. Can you believe it, I came here to set up a low-cost airline with offices in Mayfair?

I was sitting in that Mayfair office trying to work out where to start. We applied to Heathrow and Gatwick but they were both full. There were no slots. So I had two options, Stansted - which I had been through once in a private jet - or, as one of the interviewees for the job of operations director suggested, Luton - where I had never been at all.

In fact that was practically the first time I had ever heard of the place. I knew it had a football team, but that was all. Anyway, the next day, I jumped on the train from Kings Cross to Luton airport. Within a couple of minutes of arrival I thought: "Yes, this is it."

In those days, Luton airport was very different from what it is today. It had a run-down, industrial-town sort of railway station, which in fact has only just been replaced. One of the false promises that they made me then was that the station was about to be renovated. It was a taxi ride to the airport. I literally only took a couple of hours to decide. One of my English colleagues said to me, very Britishly: "Stelios, I think this is suitably downmarket."

You used to get into the airport the wrong way round; that was before the road was built. What today is our office used to be a blue shed used as the executive-aircraft departure lounge used by billionaires and Saudi kings. You see, contrary to popular belief it's not just bucket-and-spade people who use Luton, it's also rich people in private jets, which I suppose says something about the proximity of Luton to London.

Anyway, I remember walking into this empty terminal. There were a couple of charter flights about. I asked the airport director: why should I fly out of your airport? He said: because we can give you a deal. The only problem was that the guy left shortly afterwards and since then we have not had such good relations.

I resisted buying a flat in Luton, but I've spent quite a few nights in a hotel there. One of the local hotels. The best hotel in Luton, I might say. A measure of my affinity with the locals is that when people recognise me in the airport, they say: "Thank you very much." They thank me for having made commuting affordable to the south of France for the weekend, or working in London and living in Scotland, or whatever they want to do. We employ nearly 1,000 people in Luton, and if you include subcontractors it's a lot more.

The airline series about easyJet on ITV has probably done more for Luton in a positive way than anything since the Bacardi advert featuring Lorraine Chase. I suppose you could say I'm Luton's most famous fan since Lorraine. But unfortunately these idiots who run the airport today want to make us a high-cost airline. The reason why people come back again and again to us is because we are low-cost, which is how I want it to stay.

In fact, my attachment to Luton isn't sentimental. Luton is good for us. But my affection for the place is that it taught me what people really want, namely, low prices. I've learnt a lot about the airline industry by talking to off-duty crew members. I'm not used to spending time in provincial places but I've spent a lot of time in that town. I've eaten more Kentucky Fried Chicken there than anybody could handle - and don't forget I'm the kind of person who is used to dining at the Savoy.

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