THE SPIRIT OF SIR FREDDIE

Alas, poor Freddie; we remember him well. The Freddie in question was Sir Freddie Laker, whose dream of affordable air travel for the masses was the kind of entrepreneurial concept that would have received the Thatcher stamp of approval had he not attempted to implement it before Mrs T was in her full flow; as it was, he famously went bust just three years into her premiership, and his era predated her. He’d initially made money as a war-surplus aircraft dealer during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948-49, flying supplies into the besieged enclave of western influence on the fringes of the Iron Curtain; but his most celebrated venture, Laker Airways, first appeared in 1966.

After wartime restrictions, overseas travel resumed for Brits as the 50s beckoned, but when it came to flying, this remained the province of the wealthy. These were the days when couples actually dressed for air travel as though they were out for a night at the opera; the exclusive glamour of this most elite form of transport was also reflected in the sleeve of Sinatra’s 1958 LP ‘Come Fly with Me’ as well in as the much-coveted occupation of air hostess, promoted as a dream job along with that of a ballerina by girls’ comics of the era. In some respects, flying to a foreign destination was as remote to the average Brit as Dan Dare’s regular jaunts into outer space. Freddie Laker was determined to change that.

In 1971, Laker submitted an application to the Air Transport Licensing Board to launch an unprecedented low-fare, no-frills service between London and New York, charging what was then a remarkably cheap one-way fare of £32.50 in the winter months (£37.50 in the summer). Laker’s ambitious scheme came on the eve of the package-tour explosion of the early 70s, when Spain established itself as the alternative to the traditional pleb holiday resorts of Blackpool and Butlin’s; the swift turnover of travel agencies that sprang up to cater for the sudden appetite the working classes had acquired for overseas vacations was a precursor to the dot.com bubble of the early 2000s, but Freddie Laker had his sights set on bigger prizes, despite the pressure from established airlines.

It took until 1977 before Laker could finally get his Skytrain project off the ground. One-way from Gatwick to New York cost £59, which is roughly the equivalent of £335 today; it was an immediate success, and Laker’s flair for publicity ensured even those for whom £59 was too much knew who he was. The cartel of airlines whose dominance was threatened by this flash usurper responded by slashing their own prices and doing their best to undercut Laker at every turn. Laker’s success proved to be his undoing as his rivals employed every dirty trick to cut him down to size while he expanded his fleet of aircraft; the fall when it came was spectacular.

The final flight of Laker Airways took place on 5 February 1982, the same day as the firm went bankrupt, in debt by £250 million. However, the spirit of Sir Freddie was an undoubted influence on the no-frills airlines that followed in his wake, as well as on the likes of Richard Branson; the bearded wonder even went so far as to name one of his own aircraft The Spirit of Sir Freddie. Indeed, the actual spirit of Sir Freddie has continued to inspire other rich-boys with a fancy for owning their own airline ever since; many have also inherited Laker’s showmanship, becoming recognisable faces within the media in a way that the heads of more traditional airlines rarely are.

As a child, I flew for the first time at the age of ten; the airline was called Britannia, something I naturally recall due to the novelty and thrill of the situation. Our nation’s guardian was displayed prominently on the side of the aeroplane. Today, first-time flyers are often barely out of the womb and perhaps the magic of air travel has now been devalued to a degree, though this is inevitable the more people use it. Unfortunately, the higher demand and the expectation of cheap air fares has resulted in the kind of competition in which corners are cut and more purveyors of the no-frills rhetoric have taken the practice to new and potentially dangerous levels. Air travel may today be less of a fantasy form of getting from A to B for the masses than it once was, but stories of exhausted air crews and pilots falling asleep at the controls as a result of the clamour for an increase in flights demonstrate the dangers of reducing it to the standards of a bus service.

Despite being the butt of mediocre jokes and regular criticism, Ryanair, perhaps the most visibly successful successor to Sir Freddie’s ideal (it was formed two years after Laker Airway’s bankruptcy), carries more international passengers today than any other airline in the world; it is also the largest in Europe in terms of scheduled passengers flown. Its success has reflected the changing perception of air travel since Sir Freddie’s day; were he around now, he’d probably be spared many of the problems that plagued his pet project during his time. It may not be the most comfortable journey imaginable (flying cattle-trucks spring to mind), but as many have said in relation to Ryanair, you get what you pay for.

The latest bad news day to afflict Ryanair has been glossed over by the airline’s chief executive and Sir Freddie figure Michael O’Leary; although he’s yet to say sorry, he hasn’t hidden from view, facing the press and reckoning he should be applauded for admitting his mistakes. The airline has cancelled 40-50 flights a day for the next six weeks, apparently due to ‘messing up’ the planning of staff holidays and therefore being left with a shortage of available pilots; and though compensation payments estimated at around at least €20 million are promised, that’s probably little comfort to those still on holiday who are wondering how they’re going to get home. But I suppose if we want air travel to be as cheap as it has become, there’s a price to be paid for it.

© The Editor

COME FLY WITH ME

stewardessNever quite sure on the exactness of the ‘once removed/twice removed’ distinction, but the easiest way to put it is that my father once had a cousin who lived in Maidenhead, Berkshire – the Parliamentary constituency currently represented by our Glorious Leader. When I spent a couple of nights at my dad’s cousin’s home as a nine-year-old in 1977, the nearest comparison I had at the time re the residence and neighbourhood was that of Margot and Jerry’s abode on ‘The Good Life’. Like Paul Eddington’s character, her husband also worked in London and commuted back to the suburbs each evening; their neighbours included Diana Dors, Michael Parkinson and Frank Bough (oo-er) and I remember her once telling me she could get me tickets for ‘Top of the Pops’ if I wanted to be a member of the audience once I was old enough. I only wish I’d taken her up on the offer.

The teenage record collections of her grown-up son and daughter that had been left behind when they’d flown the nest were ones I recall spinning on the family turntable, including the likes of Sweet, T. Rex and early Queen. They provided an invigorating alternative to Roger Whitaker and The Carpenters, which were the standard vinyl fare back home. That the same holiday also encompassed my inaugural stroll around the capital enshrines it as one of the few childhood vacations I can recall with fondness.

What has this got to do with anything, you may ask? Well, I only use the remembrance of an introduction to a different world as a roundabout means of leading into the story of Heathrow’s third runway. The house in question – which was, incidentally, the first I ever set foot in that had en-suite bathrooms – was directly beneath the flight path of what was then the world’s busiest airport. In ‘Remember Me’, Melvyn Bragg’s moving account of his first marriage, he writes of the mental trauma the noise of planes overhead caused his wife in their marital home in Kew, though I became accustomed to the sound during the short time I spent in Maidenhead. The aircraft quickly assumed the status of background ambience for me, though I appreciate this isn’t always the case for those residing in the vicinity for longer than 48 hours.

The news that the government has finally reached a decision on gifting Heathrow a third runway was bound to open a can of worms, and the first headline-grabbing consequence of the belated thumbs-up is the earth-shattering blow that Zac Goldsmith will be standing down as an MP due to his long-standing opposition to the move. The failed London Mayoral candidate announced he will honour his pledge to campaign against the expansion of Heathrow by resigning his Richmond seat. Whilst this may not necessarily be regarded amongst Theresa May’s Tory circles as a great loss, it is an indication that the Prime Minister’s final word on the long-running saga is a contentious one.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has long been a vocal opponent of a third runway at Heathrow, harbouring his own unrealisable ambitions for a completely new London airport during his stint as the capital’s Mayor, and he has already labelled the announcement as ‘undeliverable’. Education Secretary Justine Greening is also in the Boris camp, while Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (whose own constituency includes Heathrow) has reacted with a predictable lack of enthusiasm to the news.

Theresa May’s predecessor ducked the issue throughout his premiership, under pressure from assorted NIMBY lobby groups as well as party members with constituencies that would be affected, though the PM coming out with a decision so early into her tenure at No.10 perhaps suggests an end to dithering on a subject that has been something of a hot potato in the South East for years. Adding a new runway to Gatwick was viewed as a less incendiary decision, as was extending the existing Heathrow ones rather than building a third. Now that the go-ahead for runway No.3 has been given, the saga is set to continue for several years, with first reports indicating it could be as late as 2020 before work even begins on building it; and who knows who will be in Downing Street by then?

A third runway promises upwards of 260,000 more flights into Heathrow per year (which will no doubt please those living nearby), though the cost of constructing it is rumoured to be upwards of £17.6bn, not to mention the demolition of an estimated 783 homes in the way of the redevelopment. With London currently experiencing the most severe housing crisis in its history, this is hardly the kind of news Londoners wanted to hear. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has added his voice to the condemnation, as have Greenpeace, with the organisation’s UK chief John Sauven claiming the decision will increase pollution; some union leaders, however, such TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, have backed the proposals by viewing them as a boost to jobs and the economy. That this kind of statement allies the unions with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is evidence that the third runway is something that cuts across party lines with Marmite-like precision.

Of course, if one doesn’t reside beneath the Heathrow flight path or faces eventual eviction as a result of the expansion, yesterday’s announcement has no impact upon day-to-day doings whatsoever. But for the residents of a small Middlesex village called Harmondsworth, much of which stands to disappear once building work begins, there is a weary resignation that two decades of campaigning against the third runway has resulted in defeat. Some are happy to be making a mint from the compulsory purchase of their properties, whereas others are understandably devastated – particularly the ones whose homes won’t make way for the runway and will therefore be essentially worthless as property investments once it arrives.

Over 150 years ago, the even greater destruction of Camden Town during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway was documented in Charles Dickens’ ‘Dombey and Son’, and despite the author’s reservations over industrial progress, the railways were a necessary great leap forward; it would seem a third runway at Heathrow representing similar progress ultimately depends upon whether or not one stands to profit from it. And there, in a sentence, is the story of our times. The best and the worst.

© The Editor