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Business: Skytrain: I’m Freddie. Fly Me’

3 minute read

“Do airlines think flying is only for the rich?” complains the hearty beef-and-bitter type in the ads for Laker Airways. “I’ve got to give you a better deal.”

The dealer is Freddie Laker, 54, a British aviation maverick who has become the self-proclaimed St. George of cheap transatlantic air travel. His $70 million fleet of ten planes—including three 345-passenger McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jumbo trijets—is painted in the red, white and black colors of his racing stud farm. The planes now work mainly on low-cost charters, including Advance Booking Charters, which Laker helped pioneer. But his No. 1 priority —or threat, as heads of the scheduled airlines would put it—is Skytrain, his proposed cheap ($135 one way), no-frills transatlantic air shuttle service.

Freddie Laker—he never uses his full first name Frederick—was a poor kid who got rich by seeing new possibilities in air transport. The son of a merchant seaman who deserted the family when Laker was six, he has been hooked on flying machines ever since as a kid he saw both the Hindenburg airship and a Handley Page biplane skimming the sky over Canterbury Cathedral. He quit school at 16 and began his aviation career by sweeping floors and making tea at a flying-boat factory. He eventually went on to become both an R.A.F. pilot and a licensed engineer during World War II. His big break came in 1948, when a former business associate, whom he met by chance one night in a pub, wrote out a £38,000 check on the spot to finance a Laker scheme to buy twelve planes from British Overseas Airways Corp. With them, Laker flew 4,000 sorties in the 1948-49 Berlin airlift. “We made a lot of money,” he recalls, “but we bloody well earned every penny.”

Later, Laker became the first head of British United Airways, then the country’s largest independent airline, but in 1965 resigned to start his own charter line. Laker Airways has grown into a prosperous concern with current net assets of $140 million. Although he is not one for spartan living himself —he buys a new Rolls-Royce every year and maintains a yacht in Majorca —Laker keeps his business operation lean. A staff of fewer than 20 works out of a modest ten-room block at London’s Gatwick Airport, where the boss’s own office measures a mere 10 ft. by 12ft.

Over the past five years, much of Laker’s energy has been spent fighting red tape entangling his Skytrain project. He has already spent $1.5 million in legal fees and has triumphed in no fewer than eight official hearings on both sides of the Atlantic. Skytrain, however, is still stalled. Although the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington disapproved the proposal, Skytrain could still be okayed by President Carter. But no White House decision is likely to come until the British make up their own minds about Skytrain. A British appeals court last month invalidated a government ruling that had disallowed Laker’s original permit to operate the shuttle. In effect, Skytrain now has a green light in Britain. But the British government is in the midst of an attempt to renegotiate with the U.S. the so-called Bermuda Agreement divvying up transatlantic air traffic between the airlines of the two countries (TIME, Aug. 23). Skytrain is unlikely to get off the ground, if it does at all, before a new agreement is reached—and that may not be until the end of next summer.

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