Inside Sir Freddie Laker’s no-frills Skytrain airline and its turbulent collapse

Millionaire Sir Freddie Laker’s no-frills skytrain airline went bust 40 years ago – we look back at the man Richard Branson called his mentor and the airline’s turbulent decline

Freddie Laker in jubilation at the launch of his Gatwick to New York Skytrain service in 1977
Freddie Laker in jubilation at the launch of his Gatwick to New York Skytrain service in 1977

Mr Freddie Laker was once asked by a schoolmaster in his childhood what he wanted to be when he grew up. He cheekily replied “Millionaire”.

His classmates laughed at him, but Freddie went on to see his dream come true by making cheap air travel available to everyone. He founded the Laker Airlines charter company in 1966 and then greeted passengers with his Skytrain service.

On the day before the maiden flight of his transatlantic Skytrain service from Gatwick, London, to JFK, New York in 1977, he even turned on his head and declared, “I did everything but turned on my head to take the Skytrain to the… to get running. Now I’ve done it!”

Its flights seated 345 passengers – with single tickets costing £59 – and passengers queued for 24 hours for a chance to be the first to board the walk-in economy service. For an additional £1.75, passengers could enjoy a meal of pie, beef in red wine, apple pie, cheese, biscuits and a small bottle of wine.

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A colorful misfit, Freddie was the very public face of his company and often escorted passengers on flights and welcomed them on board.

He literally started on the ground floor – his first job at 16 was as a floor sweeper in an aircraft factory in Kent.

He then studied aircraft construction and served with the RAF. From such humble beginnings he went on to build his own business empire and was knighted by the Queen in August 1978 for his services to the airline industry.

Laker Airways Chief Executive Freddie Laker in a jubilant mood on the runway at Gatwick Airport the day before the maiden flight of his transatlantic Skytrain service


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prime minister Margaret Thatcher said to have been a great admirer of his business know-how, which began when he began trading in war surplus aircraft. His planes helped fly vital relief supplies to West Berlin after World War II, and he later became managing director of British United Airways.

But Freddie’s high-flying dreams collapsed 40 years ago last month when the no-frills long-haul airline collapsed with £270million in debt.

Around 6,000 passengers were suddenly stranded at Gatwick when planes were immediately grounded.

Richard Branson has described Freddie Laker as a mentor


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Emigrant families, vacationers and world-traveling students were among those whose travel plans were suddenly and without warning canceled. Thousands more passengers are stranded abroad.

Attempts to secure a last-minute bailout were unsuccessful as the 1980s recession combined with volatile market trends, an oil crisis and aggressive competition brought about the company’s demise.

The public quickly rallied to try to save the aviation world maverick and launched a petition and fundraiser which raised £1million.

Laker Airways supporters sign a petition at Gatwick Airport


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Thousands of Laker Airways employees also made their way to London to support their boss, with one protester dressed as a monkey and carrying a placard reading “No monkey business with Laker”.

Six of the company’s stewardesses even recorded a record dedicated to Freddie Laker entitled “Let Us Fly.” The record was released on Red Bus Records and a portion of the sales proceeds were donated to the Laker Fund.

Six Laker stewardesses made a record dedicated to Freddie Laker entitled “Let Us Fly”.


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Chart-topping The Police held a benefit concert in America, but it was all too late to save the company.

In the five years leading up to the collapse, more than three million passengers traveled on his planes, and Freddie once told the BBC: “I had 29 airlines allied against me. Say what you will about Margaret Thatcher, but I was her icon when she spoke about competition. “Look at Laker Airways, the competition is paying off,” she said. But as soon as things got heated, of course she kicked me out.”

BA and other airlines settled their creditors’ claims three years after the company went bankrupt in 1982, paying Freddie almost £6million. He formed a new company in 1995, but his Laker Airways operations eventually operated limited flights between America and the Bahamas, ceasing trading in 2004.

The airline tycoon and trained pilot died in Miami in 2006 at the age of 83. Mr Richard Branson called him a mentor and said Freddie advised him early in his career to become the public face of his company, adding, “He was a larger than life character with a wicked sense of humor and a great friend.”

He also paid his personal tribute to the high-flying visionary – by naming one of his early Virgin Atlantic aircraft The Spirit Of Sir Freddie. Inside Sir Freddie Laker's no-frills Skytrain airline and its turbulent collapse

Fry Electronics Team

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