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