Sir Freddie Laker held court in New York two years ago at a frequent-flier awards ceremony that bore his name. Attendees treated the British low-cost airline pioneer like a star, asking for autographs and posing for photos with him.
Sipping a glass of white wine during an interview, Laker, who at the time looked at least two decades younger than his 83 years, spoke fondly of the airline industry. At the time, he was still chief executive of Laker Airways Ltd., a Bahamas-based airline that flew tourists between the islands and the East Coast of the United States.
The work, he beamed, “keeps me alive.”
Laker died Thursday at the age of 83, but his revolutionary and democratic vision continues to soar at a time when millions of people board aircraft each year. He joyfully exploded the idea that airline travel must be only for the rich and famous, and his groundbreaking strategies were copied by Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Air Tran and People Express.
Born into poverty as Frederick Alfred Laker on Aug. 6, 1922, he studied aeronautics, flew in World War II and started his airline in 1966 as a charter carrier. But Laker’s ultimate vision was to create an airline for “poor people,” especially students and senior citizens who wanted to travel between London and the United States. He wanted to create an air service that would act pretty much like a train, where passengers could just walk up and purchase a cheap ticket.
“I don’t want to appear cocky, but I was the first low-cost operator. I was light years before everyone else,” he said during the New York interview.
Modest, Laker wasn’t. But why should he have been? He laid the groundwork that many airlines emulate today. For example, Laker knew the importance of using only one type of aircraft as a way of reducing costs associated with employee training and maintenance. That’s now one of the key strategies used by Southwest with its fleet of Boeing 737s.
“He was a pioneer in trying to make air travel affordable for the masses,” said Linda Rutherford, a Southwest spokeswoman.
Laker also introduced the concept of one-class seating, which Southwest, JetBlue and United subsidiary Ted use. Laker began flying into alternative airports. Instead of using London’s highly congested Heathrow International Airport, Laker flew into Gatwick, an airport he also helped design.
And while many airlines today are now selling packaged meals to passengers during flights, Laker was the first to implement the buy-on-board concept.
“Freddie Laker was low-cost before there was even the word ‘low-cost.’ He’ll always be remembered for that,” said Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine.
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