It’s only natural that Norwegian Air – UK should have chosen Sir Freddie Laker as one of the first “heroes” to adorn the tail of one of its 787-9 aircraft.
After all, it was “Sir Freddie,” widely hailed as a British aviation pioneer, who is credited with inventing low-cost, no-frills transatlantic travel that revolutionized the airline industry and is emulated by countless carriers around the world today
Now his son, Freddie Laker, has launched a web site, sirfreddielaker.com, providing a retrospective of his father’s professional and personal life.
Sir Freddie is best known as the founder of Laker Airways and Skytrain, which after years of battling regulatory authorities in the United Kingdom and established long-haul carriers in both the United Kingdom and the United States, took off in 1977 offering one-way fares from London to New York for £59 and from New York to London for $135, less than half his competitors’ fares.
The flights were Spartan. Initially, passengers were expected to purchase their tickets on the day of departure, thereby eliminating the need for a reservation system.
Although initially successful financially, Skytrain came to an end on Feb. 5, 1982, when the company went bankrupt.
Laker, in a telephone interview from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., call the creation of the website “a labor of love.”
“I was trying to share him with the world, hoping that people will take an interest given all the new things coming out this year,” he said.
The site is divided into four sections: a biography of Sir Freddie; a gallery of Laker Airways and Skytrain, featuring scores of photos and press clippings; a gallery of Sir Freddie in the Bahamas, where he briefly operated an airline after the collapse of Skytrain; and a gallery of his personal life, with numerous personal photos.
In explaining why he decided to launch the website now, Laker explained, “I’m a digital guy, for starters.” He admitted he had been “daydreaming for a while about how cool it would be to share my father’s life. It’s not just photos, it’s newspaper clippings, letters people wrote him, interviews, family films, all kinds of things.”
Laker said he also learned that a major biography and documentary film about the rise and fall of Skytrain were in the works.
The sudden resurgence of low-fare, no-frills air travel, with the emergence of carriers like Norwegian Air and Air Asia, also made it the perfect time for a retrospective on the man who started it all.
Laker hopes visitors to the site will come away with an appreciation of the duality of Sir Freddie’s personality. While an astute businessman, “he was also really funny, with the bigger-than-life smile and sense of humor,” Laker says.
The day after his father died in 2006 at the age of 84, Laker said, he had the image of an Oozlum bird, the symbol of Laker Airlines that was displayed on the tail of its aircraft, tattooed on his right shoulder. Laker said his father’s choice of the mythical creature, which The Oxford English Dictionary describes as “[a] bird displaying ridiculous behavior” was an example of Sir Freddie never taking himself too seriously.
Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, was an early recipient of Laker’s attention and advice. Although he didn’t go on to create a low-cost carrier like his mentor, he made full use of Sir Freddie’s advice that he use the press to call attention to himself and his enterprises.
Laker said he’s an admirer of Branson, along with Tony Fernandes of Air Asia and Bjørn Kjos, the founder and CEO of Norwegian Air Shuttle. He credits all three with carrying on elements of his father’s vision. He cited Fernandes as coming to closest to embodying his father’s energy and personality. “He’s running one of the best low-cost operations in the world,” he said.
Laker sees his father’s greatest achievement as “fighting against the status quo” to make air travel available to everyone without special gimmicks or tricks.
Laker is convinced that Skytrain could have succeeded had it not been for the opposition of both the British and American governments, interested in protecting established transatlantic carriers. It was only when newly released documents detailed how both governments and legacy carriers sought to undermine Sir Freddie that Laker became truly angry about how his father had been treated, he said.
He believes that today’s low-fare airlines can survive despite obstacles. One issue, he said, is that investors sometime urge low-fare carriers to grow too fast. “Maybe the slow and steady approach is the way to go,” he said. Still, he noted, “the cost of being a startup is extremely challenging. I have to be honest – it’s very hard, but it’s possible.”
One advantage low-fare carriers have today, Laker said, is the vast improvement in aircraft efficiency, with planes like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus 321 flying further and using much less fuel than their predecessors, dramatically lowering the cost of operating an aircraft.
“The introduction of these super-efficient planes allows the number crunchers to say ‘Maybe we can make this work,’” he said.
Laker said that he wouldn’t call today’s low-cost airlines “no-frills,” since they are constantly trying to induce passengers to purchase amenities, such as meals and drinks, extra legroom and, of course, checked baggage. This “up-selling” strategy is also being used by legacy carriers to boost their revenue.
While he closely follows the commercial aviation industry, Laker himself chose to follow a different career path.
“I felt like I spent my entire childhood being groomed to be an airline CEO,” Laker said. “By the time I was 15, my dad could point to a plane in the sky and I could identify it as a Boeing 727-200 series or whatever – things that I think no one at my age should probably know.
“At the same time, I was just oversaturated with it. Even 25 years ago, my dad was still a pretty well-known guy, and it was just a big shadow I didn’t want to live in,” he said.
Instead, Laker, who said “I’ve always been a techie,” decided to pursue a career based on his love of the Internet. “I’m very lucky that I picked an industry that I’ve loved being in for the last 20 years.”
He’s started several Internet-related businesses and confesses to “spectacularly” crashing one of them. Most of his ventures have been successful, and, as he notes, “two out of three [businesses] isn’t bad.” Today, he’s a principal in a consultancy firm that helps transform companies around the world.
One thing Laker has tried to emulate from his father is how to deal with mistakes, both personal and professional. He recalls telling his father of one mistake he’d made, to which Sir Freddie, putting his hand on his son’s shoulder and advised him not to worry, saying, “Son, I’ve messed up things you haven’t even thought of.”