Freddie Laker; A Vanguard Of No-Frills, Low-Fare Flying

Freddie Laker in 1995 with a model for the new Laker Airways, which offered service to the Bahamas.
Freddie Laker in 1995 with a model for the new Laker Airways, which offered service to the Bahamas. (Reuters)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006

Freddie Laker, 83, the ebullient British entrepreneur who started the first low-cost, no-reservation flights across the Atlantic Ocean and then saw his company collapse as rivals slashed their prices, died Feb. 9 at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Laker launched Skytrain in September 1977, charging $135 to fly from New York to London, as long as passengers were willing initially to pay cash on a first-come, first-served basis, trek to remote airports and pay extra for food and drink. Skytrain did not carry mail or cargo in order to save weight, and thus fuel.

"I don't want to appear cocky," Mr. Laker told The Washington Post in 2004, "but I was the first low-cost operator. I was light-years before everyone else. . . . I wanted to create an airline for poor people -- for students and senior citizens -- who might want to travel between London and the U.S."

Long before People Express, Southwest, Independence Air or any of the small carriers to which penny-pinching passengers now turn, Mr. Laker's Skytrain was the carrier of the cost-conscious, saving passengers about $200 on each one-way flight. At its peak in 1980, the airline hauled one of every five transatlantic passengers. In its five years of existence, 3 million passengers boarded Mr. Laker's fleet of 20 DC-10s. When his company's finances started to wobble, the public donated $1 million to keep it afloat.

"He was a larger-than-life figure with a wicked sense of humor and a great friend," Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Atlantic airline, told the Associated Press. Branson named one of the planes in his fleet the "Spirit of Sir Freddie" as a tribute. Mr. Laker was knighted in 1978 for his contributions to the British economy.

Passengers didn't forget him, either. In 1986, he was atop the 4,800-foot Ayers Rock, a remote spot in Australia's midlands. He told the New York Times that a woman came up to him and said, "You're Freddie Laker.''

As popular as Mr. Laker was with travelers who couldn't afford full-fare travel, he was unpopular with competitors, whom he publicly challenged and later sued for conspiring to bankrupt him.

"They didn't try to imitate me. They drove me out of business," he said two years ago. An antitrust lawsuit that the liquidator of his business filed against a dozen airlines was settled out of court, with the airlines paying about $60 million to Mr. Laker and his creditors.

The decline of the British pound against the U.S. dollar also was a factor in Skytrain's ruin. Mr. Laker had purchased five new jets with borrowed money, but the loans were in pounds and the purchases in dollars.

After Skytrain collapsed, Mr. Laker disappeared from the public eye, living in the Bahamas and then Miami with his fourth wife, Jacqueline Laker, who survives him, as do two children.

Mr. Laker reappeared in 1995, launching a twice-weekly air service between the Bahamas and the East Coast called Laker Airways and Laker Vacations. The flights stopped in 2004.

It was not the first time that Mr. Laker bounced back from adverse circumstances.

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