SIR FREDDIE LAKER, the enterprising airline operator who gave competition a good name and his rivals a good scare, may have lost his imaginative battle to keep a dream aloft--but no one should consider his experiment itself a total failure. The collapse of Laker Airways was no indictment of Sir Freddie's efforts to shake up an industry for which more competition with less regulation should be the goal; his bold venture was brought down by the effects of the recession on transatlantic air services, by high interest rates and by a marked drop in the value of sterling against the dollar.

"The big boys," as Sir Freddie has always called his larger competitors, may weep crocodile tears, but hundreds of Britons and others who believed in the Laker spirit of low-cost, no-frills flights clearly are mourning the loss of this airline. An estimated $5.5 million poured in from people everywhere after bankruptcy was announced and before Sir Freddie expressed his thanks and asked that the donations cease. Millions of people had crossed the Atlantic on Laker, so many of them only because of its low fares.

As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a self-proclaimed "Freddie Laker fan," said, "Whatever his difficulties now, nothing can take away from the great service he has done. He brought the possibility of travel to people who never dreamed they would have it."

To most of an industry long swaddled in comfy regulations aimed at keeping the planes and fares right up there on protective cloud nine, the difficulties of any airline today tend to be attributed to deregulation. But open competition is just that--a marketplace that allows imagination, challenge and price wars to make or break an airline. Laker Airways felt the best and worst effects of doing business in such a market, but did not fail because of deregulation. The ideas live on because of deregulation--and on this score, we haven't heard the last idea from Sir Freddie.