Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sir Freddie Laker

I noted the passing of Sir Freddie Laker last week.


If you have ever flown Southwest Airlines, or JetBlue or in Europe, Ryanair or EasyJet, you have flown on an airline inspired by Sir Freddie.

In the 1970s Laker created Skytrain, the first discount air operation. Laker charged $135 to fly from New York to London, a dramatically low fare in those times. But there was a catch, passengers had to pay cash on a first-come, first-served basis, pay extra for food and drink and leave from less convenient airports. Skytrain's DC-10s did not carry cargo in order to save weight and fuel. In 5 years, the airline carried 3 million passengers,nearly 20% of the transatlantic passengers. Laker was knighted in 1978 and always thereafter known as Sir Freddie.

Sir Freddie was a hero to those wanting to travel on a budget. Unfortunately he was evil incarnate to his competitors, whom he publicly challenged and later sued for conspiring to bankrupt him. He charged that that big carriers such as TWA, Pan Am, British Airways, used illegal pricing pressure to force Skytrain off the tracks. He won, but after Skytrain was dead and buried. Skytrain last flew in 1982.

But as is frequently true of trailblazers, their defeats and sometimes bitter victories lay the groundwork for others' future success. Thus Sir Freddie's dream lives on in the aforementioned Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and other low cost carriers, many of whom are stronger finacially than the big "Legacy" carriers.

Virgin's Atlantic's Chairman Sir Richard Branson, has acknowledged his debt to Sir Freddie. He is quoted as saying that Laker "gave me a lot of very useful advice when I set up Virgin Atlantic 21 years ago. Virgin Atlantic named one of our planes Spirit of Sir Freddie in recognition of our respect for him. He was a larger than life figure, with a wicked sense of humour and a great friend."

Sir Freddie had a long career in the airline industry, including running British United (BUI),one of the UK's largest charter operators in the 1960's. He frequently had to invent new rules (and stretch a few) inorder to keep BUI and Laker afloat. For example he resorted to selling tickets to overseas travelers who joined made up "affinity groups" to get around US restrictions on charter flights.

The authorities got wise, but only after some strange scenes at Gatwick Airport in London, in which, according to London's Daily Telegraph, Sir Freddie "turned up with his lawyer and a Bible, and passengers were asked to swear allegiance to their make-believe clubs."

Sir Freddie was one of the last of the colorful characters of aviation. Now only Sir Richard Branson is left to inspire the industry.... the rest are bean counters.

No comments: