Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Sir Freddie Laker, who has died at the age of 83, was not only one of Britain’s most popular and flamboyant businessmen. He also helped to re-write the rules of international civil aviation.

His cut-price transatlantic Skytrain service, launched in 1977, collapsed in 1982 under a mound of debt. But he had accurately foreseen that the civil aviation regime that had existed since the end of World War II dominated by state-owned carriers, fare-fixing and fierce opposition to new entrants could not continue.

Airline privatisation and deregulation have since occurred in both the US and Europe. But Sir Freddie believed that the large airlines were still making it difficult for independent carriers to compete. Well into his seventies, he continued to rail against the power of the big carriers, attacking in particular the alliance between British Airways, his old enemy, and American Airlines.

Nevertheless, independent carriers have managed to establish themselves in Europe since the demise of Skytrain, particularly Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic in the UK. Sir Freddie was a great admirer of Virgin, seeing in it many of the qualities he believed Skytrain would have demonstrated if it had survived.

Frederick Alfred Laker was born into a working-class family in Canterbury in 1922. His father left his mother when Freddie was five. Fascinated by aircraft, Sir Freddie began work on the shopfloor at Short Brothers in Rochester at the age of 16.

During the second world war, he served with the Air Transport Auxiliary, where he learnt to fly. His first big business breakthrough after the war came with the Berlin air lift in 1948. Using Halifax aircraft that he had bought as surplus from the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation, he made 2,577 round trips to Berlin, carrying 12 per cent of all the goods that went into the city.

He spent the 1950s engaged in various airline activities, including a venture which flew cars to the continent from Southend. In the later part of the decade he sold his interests to what became a new consortium, British United Airways. Sir Myles Watt became the chairman. Sir Freddie was managing director.

After a disagreement with Sir Myles, Sir Freddie left and set up Laker Airways, a charter operation, in 1966. Yet he hankered to break into the tightly controlled transatlantic scheduled market. The idea of Skytrain was that fares would be cheap: there would be no frills, and passengers could simply turn up and buy a ticket.

Neither the UK nor the US authorities were impressed. Laker spent years fighting for permission to operate until he succeeded in 1977. His cheap flights made him a popular hero. In 1978, he was knighted.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were difficult times for all airlines. The second oil shock hit the industry hard, but Sir Freddie had his own problems. He was plagued by exchange rate fluctuations and had borrowed heavily to buy his fleet of DC-10s and Airbuses.

When two of his largest creditors, General Electric and McDonnell Douglas, both of the US, considered converting their debt into preference shares, rival airlines, particularly on the continent, protested. Both US companies were threatened with a loss of business by other airlines. Sir Freddie’s bankers pulled the plug.

Although financial analysts concluded that Sir Freddie’s problem was that he had borrowed far too much, he believed he had been undone by a conspiracy. He blamed British Airways and other carriers for deliberately bringing Skytrain down. Certainly, all the established airlines were happy to see the price-cutting interloper out of the way.

Sir Freddie sued, eventually reaching an out of court settlement which resulted in his staff and creditors being paid out. Sir Freddie accepted personal damages of £6m.

He was bitter at the way he believed Britain had treated him. Even under Margaret Thatcher, he said, the country still resented success. While this might have been true of rival airlines, it was a little hard on the many who admired him and even sent him money when Skytrain collapsed.

He spent most of his time after the collapse in Florida and on his yacht in the Bahamas. He could not stay away from the airline business, however. The 1990s saw him take a substantial minority stake in a new transatlantic service, flying between the UK and Florida. The emphasis this time was on service rather than low prices.

His private life was both tempestuous and tragic. He fathered three sons and a daughter, but two of the boys died, one in infancy and another in a car accident. He married four times.

In spite of his setbacks and a struggle against cancer, he never lost his ebullience and enthusiasm for launching yet another business venture.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
myFT

Follow the topics mentioned in this article

Comments have not been enabled for this article.