Sir Freddie Laker, cartel buster and passengers' champion

Sir Freddie Laker died on February 9th, 2006, having been one of the leading pioneers in opening up civil aviation to vast numbers of ordinary people who were previously priced out of it. Most airlines, both public and private, were members of IATA, the International Air Transport Association, which in those days acted to limit competition between them. They charged the same (high) fares, and were even subject to regulations governing the quality of sandwiches they served to prevent attempts to poach passengers by serving better ones.

I sometimes flew with Loftliedir, the Icelandic airline that refused to join IATA, and could charge lower fares. But it did involve stopping at Keflavik on the way, and therefore took longer.

Sir Freddie founded Laker Airways in 1966 with a couple of second-hand turboprops. He ran no-frills charter flights for which passengers bought tickets on the day of travel, and provided their own food. It became his model for the later 'Skytrain' flights, but it took years of negotiating with civil aviation authorities, which were themselves subject to intense strong-arm lobbying by established airlines trying to squeeze out would-be competitors, and by politicians trying to protect their national flag-carriers.

He applied for a licence to run low-cost transatlantic flights in 1971, but it took years of wrangling against determined opposition before the first Skytrain flight to the US took off in 1977. It was an immediate sensation, charging £59 one-way for a no-frills flight aboard his red, black and white DC-10s. His business model aimed at a load factor of 50 percent, but within a year it was 80 percent. It was then that he received his knighthood.

It changed aviation forever. The big established airlines, British Airways, Pan Am and TWA, immediately matched Laker's standby fares and rules for a few of their economy-class seats, and standby fares were introduced. The media commented on the new "blue jean" young passengers who were taking to the airways as air travel at the new low prices achieved mass popularity. Laker's low-cost model was the precursor to later budget airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair.

His company went bankrupt in 1982, following an aggressive and sustained campaign by American and European airlines to put him out of business. The campaign included pressure on banks to foreclose on loans made to Laker. A civil lawsuit brought by Laker was settled out of court in his favour.

Civil aviation was changed forever by Sir Freddie, and his legacy lives on in the low-cost carriers that fly today. His name is preserved in several airport lounges named after him, and in planes named "Spirit of Sir Freddie." He is remembered with affection by those who campaign for choice and competition to break open cartels and service customers instead of protecting producers.