Terry Smith
February 22, 1982 12:00 PM

If any doubt remained that Sir Freddie Laker is a knight of the people, the events of this month have dispelled it. The bankruptcy of Laker Airways, which in 1977 pioneered cut-rate transatlantic air travel, struck Laker’s countrymen like the demise of an old friend. Within hours of the announcement a group of private citizens set up Freddie’s Friendly Fund, quixotically dedicated to saving Skytrain. In the first 24 hours they received $1 million in pledges—and by last week the tally was up to $5.5 million. In addition, the rock group Police promised to turn over the receipts of a Los Angeles concert totaling $185,000. From two schoolboys who donated 16 pence at a Laker airport counter to the group of Liverpool businessmen who offered $1 million, grateful travelers have rallied to Sir Freddie’s side. Says Laker stewardess Lisa Holden, who has spent her recent days gathering signatures on a petition of support: “If public opinion was anything to go by, we’d never go out of business.”

Unfortunately, Laker’s $388 million debt is more than even such extraordinary goodwill can erase. A British bank hoping to raise a last-minute $64.7 million fund to keep Laker flying admitted defeat, and an offer by the airline’s 2,500 employees to take a huge pay cut was similarly futile. For Laker staffers who lobbied vociferously at 10 Downing Street last week, their plea for government assistance was largely a symbolic last stand. “I’ll go under with Laker,” said Capt. Terry Fenton. “I won’t find another job as a pilot, I won’t find any other job. There are no jobs. I’ll have to sell my house, just the same as 90 percent of the people here today.”

Laker was a victim of problems that have thrown other airlines into a tail-spin—skyrocketing fuel prices and decreased passenger traffic. When Pan Am (which lost $348 million in 1981) slashed its New York-London fare last November, Sir Freddie’s prospects darkened. The decline of the British pound also sapped his resources. Currently trying to sell the insolvent British Airways, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government announced that it could not intervene on Laker’s behalf.

Distress at Laker’s collapse was not purely sentimental. Rival airlines confirmed that their transatlantic fares would rise about 15 percent on March 1, with another 7½ percent hike due in May. “In the last couple of years the airlines haven’t made money,” said a British Airways spokesman. “This winter the fares were below insanity levels, because everybody was losing money. Laker has been consistently reducing fares to the point where they are unrealistic in terms of viable operation. He has now become a victim of his own plans.”

Sir Freddie, 59, could take some consolation from the outpouring of popular support. In fact, he announced he might form a “People’s Airline” with public investment. The son of a merchant seaman who deserted his family, Laker studied engineering and started in business as a peddler of surplus trucks. With the proceeds he bought a cherry orchard, sold that to buy spare radio parts, and with his ever-increasing profits purchased a fleet of planes that made a bundle in the Berlin Airlift. He became a millionaire in the package tour industry, building in the process Europe’s largest independent airline, before starting Laker Airways in 1966.

Even after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1978, Freddie never lost his rapport with working-class people. “We feel we work for an individual, not a company,” observes Laker stewardess Janice Wright. “Sir Freddie is a man we can all identify with.” The motorists passing by the Downing Street demonstration proved that by shouting and honking their horns to express support. “He always felt he had the people behind him,” says Sir Freddie’s press secretary, Robin Flood. “Now that he has seen his obituary before he is dead, he knows for sure that the public does care.”

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