With the help of another flamboyant, non-conforming British entrepreneur, Sir Freddie Laker is attempting a dramatic resurrection of his low-fare transatlantic passenger airline after its collapse a week ago in Britain's biggest business failure in a decade.
In a fast-paced, often emotional melodrama that has gripped the country since Laker Airways' cut-rate Skytrain between Britain and the United States suddenly was grounded under the weight of hundreds of millions of dollars in debts, Laker has been rushing from meeting to meeting here with receivers, financiers and aviation regulators trying to get a smaller version of his airline back into the air.
His efforts are being cheered by much of the British media and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, bolstering Laker's self-promoted image as a champion of the people and free enterprise battling the international airline cartel to keep down the cost of air travel. "If we are allowed to put this show back on the road again," Laker said yesterday, "then we will be the market leaders in low-fare transport across the Atlantic."
But he is being opposed by larger airlines and both Conservative and Labor politicians here who accuse him of mismanaging Laker Airways and turning his back on its creditors to form a new firm that would not be obligated to pay off the bankrupt airline's debts.
Laker has won unexpected financial backing for his attempted new venture from an old friend, controversial millionaire Roland (Tiny) Rowland. His London-based Lonrho conglomerate of international mining, merchandising, engineering, brewing, hotel-keeping and publishing recently bought Britain's Sunday Observer newspaper and has been trying to take over the top-of-the- market House of Fraser retailing chain that owns London's famous Harrods department store.
Like Laker, Rowland is regarded by much of Britain's financial establishment as a flamboyant, wheeling-and-dealing upstart.
The Laker drama has featured televised scenes of Laker and Rowland periodically appearing outside Lonrho's headquarters here to report on the progress of their talks to renew an association that began, according to Laker, when he flew for a small Rowland air service in 1946. Rowland, who now owns a cargo airline, reportedly has been eager to get into the passenger business despite financial problems caused many airlines by recession, high fuel costs and cutthroat transatlantic price competition.
Subject to the final verdict of his accountants, Rowland reportedly has agreed to invest up to $50 million in what he and Laker are calling People's Airline. He and Laker would each own half of the new firm's voting stock, while nonvoting shares would be offered to the British public, which has contributed more than $5 million to a widely publicized "Save Laker" fund.
"It will be a slimmed down Laker Airline operating initially with five McDonnell Douglas DC10s and a cash injection from us," Rowland said. It is believed that the DC10s, to be used on Laker's bread-and-butter service between London's Gatwick Airport and New York, would be obtained from a banking syndicate that two years ago financed Laker's purchase of the aircraft with a loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. This could relieve the bank of a potential loss of up to $147 million.
"It's an absolute joy to be doing business with my old mate Tiny," Laker beamingly told reporters outside the Lonrho offices. "This is a perfect example of private enterprise helping private enterprise."
But Laker and Lonhro are racing against time. Receivers already are selling off parts of bankrupt Laker Airways and l,700 of its 2,000 employes at London's Gatwick Airport were laid off today. Other airlines have moved to take over some of Laker's routes. Laker's license from Britain's Civil Aviation Authority also is about to be revoked. Obtaining a new license could take months, even if Laker and Rowland satisfy the authority that they can avoid another financial disaster. With each passing day, Laker is unable to carry hundreds of potential passengers who had bought tickets on now-canceled flights.
Rowland publicly promised last night to pay back more than a million dollars paid for those tickets if the new airline fails to get off the ground, which Laker, standing beside Rowland, called a "wonderful gesture."