A billion-dollar antitrust lawsuit against some of the world's largest airlines brought by bankrupt Laker Airways was settled yesterday with a promised payment of $48 million to Laker creditors -- including 14,000 airline ticket holders, according to an agreement announced in U.S. District Court here.
The civil lawsuit filed by liquidators of the bankrupt company charged that the airlines and McDonnell Douglas Corp. used a "predatory scheme" to drive Sir Freddie Laker's cut-rate Skytrain out of business in 1982 by slashing their fares to below-cost levels.
In announcing the settlement, British Airways, one of the defendants, said the agreement "bears no admission of guilt." The statement said the defendants "continue to deny that there was any attempt on our part to drive Laker Airways out of business or to breach U.S. antitrust laws."
The settlement's biggest impact may be felt in Great Britain, where it appears to clear the way for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government to sell state-owned British Airways, as part of her program to "privatize" state assets. The possibility of a huge antitrust judgment against the airline had made the sale difficult.
"This may enable the British government to privatize British Airways," U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene said yesterday, after the agreement was announced in court. "It also holds out hope of peace on the international aviation scene."
The judge apparently was referring to the vicious price wars in recent years among international carriers, particularly those flying transatlantic routes.
While the suit was pending, the Justice Department began its own grand jury investigation into possible criminal antitrust violations by airlines flying between the United States and Britain. But the investigation was closed in November 1984, when President Reagan, citing foreign policy concerns, ordered it halted.
In the civil lawsuit settled yesterday, Sir Freddie Laker, the airline's flamboyant owner, was offered $8 million in return for "an acceptable release of all claims," according to the British Airways statement. Laker's ex-wife Joan was offered $50,000 for her shares in the defunct airline.
Neither has accepted the offers, but even if those offers are rejected, the rest of the agreement will stand, according to lawyers in the case.
About 14,000 consumers, who were stranded with worthless tickets when the Skytrain operation collapsed, will receive full refunds, according to Christopher Morris, of the accounting firm of Touche Ross, the Laker liquidator. Consumers may still file claims for refunds, he said. About 2,300 Laker employes also will receive all the funds they are owed, he said.
Larger creditors, however, including approximately 30 banks, will receive about $250,000 each, according to the agreement. The large creditors "are not getting much," Morris acknowledged, but he said that all the creditors "are happy with the agreement."
The defendants in the case were: British Airways, Pan American, TWA, Sabena, UTA, KLM, SAS, British Caledonian, Swissair, Lufthansa, McDonnell Douglas and McDonnell Douglas Finance Corp.
Sidney Rosdeitcher, who represented British Airways, refused to disclose how the cost of the settlement had been divided.
The settlement included an offer of $8 million in fees to the two law firms representing the liquidator, Beckman & Kirstein and Metzger, Shadyac & Schwartz. Cindy Cipriani, a spokesman for Touche Ross, said the lawyers settled for that sum. Attorney Richard C. Shadyac, however, said that was "not correct" and that the amount had been "sealed by agreement." CAPTION: Picture, Sir Freddie Laker . . . offered $8 million to settle claims.