LONDON (Dow Jones)--Virgin, EasyJet, Ryanair, Jetblue not to mention countless millions of passengers owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sir Freddie Laker, whose death was announced late Thursday.
Few knew it back then, but Laker's audacious challenge to break the flag carrier airline monopoly in 1977 would change the world of flying forever. Laker's legacy may not be the Skytrain airline he struggled for so long to create, but it shines through in the many economy and no-frills carriers around today.
To those of us who knew him and remember the period well, Laker was the acceptable face of capitalism. He challenged what for too long had been taken for granted, and he opened up a new world for those that had never before been able to afford air travel.
Easy to forget that it took four years of legal wrangling before Laker's Skytrain finally took to the skies in 1977. When it finally got off the ground, in a blaze of publicity, that challenge to a cartel of airlines forced them to more than halve ticket prices to just above what Laker was asking.
To then state-owned airlines like British Airways the price war Laker began on transatlantic flights had to be stamped out. BA, along with some thirty other state-owned international airlines challenged by Laker, did just about everything they could to put obstacles in his way, to little avail.
Ironically, what grounded Laker down in the end was overexpansion using the wrong planes. But when Laker Airways failed in 1982, leaving 6,000 passengers stranded in the U.S. and debts of GBP270 million, it was hardly the end of the affair.
After all, Laker was the entrepreneur of his time. And so long as he looked like winning his open competition challenge, he had the support of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - though she typically dumped the cause as soon as Laker failed.
Laker was every bit as determined to challenge authority as the likes of Ryanair's chief Michael O'Leary is today, though back then no one had ever seen anything like it. That was the real problem: what's the norm today wasn't back then, and Laker never enjoyed "institutional" support.
Laker's efforts to get back in business were foiled by the Civil Aviation Authority and the many airlines his efforts had badly damaged. Multibillion pound lawsuits followed, and though Laker eventually paid off all his creditors he was never able to bounce back.
Today it is all too easy to take Laker's legacy of budget travel for granted. He was a pioneer, but like so many he was too far ahead of his time.
And he made a few mistakes, too - like buying a large fleet of McDonnell Douglas DC10s, which suffered from a very patchy safety record at the time. He also chose to expand just as Britain was heading into what became a major recession.
But despite the many bouts of turbulence along the way, Laker will be remembered as the man who changed the face of the airline industry for good - and laid down the foundations of what we all take for granted today.
(Howard Wheeldon was a senior equities analyst for 20 years, and has been a columnist at Dow Jones for the past three years. He can be reached at +44 207-842-9251 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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