Sir Freddie Laker and His Fans, Pitching to the End, Try Vainly to Avert the Wreck of Skytrain
updated 02/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST
Unfortunately, Laker's $388 million debt is more than even such extraordinary goodwill can erase. A British bank hoping to raise a last-minute $64.7 million fund to keep Laker flying admitted defeat, and an offer by the airline's 2,500 employees to take a huge pay cut was similarly futile. For Laker staffers who lobbied vociferously at 10 Downing Street last week, their plea for government assistance was largely a symbolic last stand. "I'll go under with Laker," said Capt. Terry Fenton. "I won't find another job as a pilot, I won't find any other job. There are no jobs. I'll have to sell my house, just the same as 90 percent of the people here today."
Laker was a victim of problems that have thrown other airlines into a tail-spin—skyrocketing fuel prices and decreased passenger traffic. When Pan Am (which lost $348 million in 1981) slashed its New York-London fare last November, Sir Freddie's prospects darkened. The decline of the British pound also sapped his resources. Currently trying to sell the insolvent British Airways, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government announced that it could not intervene on Laker's behalf.
Distress at Laker's collapse was not purely sentimental. Rival airlines confirmed that their transatlantic fares would rise about 15 percent on March 1, with another 7½ percent hike due in May. "In the last couple of years the airlines haven't made money," said a British Airways spokesman. "This winter the fares were below insanity levels, because everybody was losing money. Laker has been consistently reducing fares to the point where they are unrealistic in terms of viable operation. He has now become a victim of his own plans."
Sir Freddie, 59, could take some consolation from the outpouring of popular support. In fact, he announced he might form a "People's Airline" with public investment. The son of a merchant seaman who deserted his family, Laker studied engineering and started in business as a peddler of surplus trucks. With the proceeds he bought a cherry orchard, sold that to buy spare radio parts, and with his ever-increasing profits purchased a fleet of planes that made a bundle in the Berlin Airlift. He became a millionaire in the package tour industry, building in the process Europe's largest independent airline, before starting Laker Airways in 1966.
Even after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1978, Freddie never lost his rapport with working-class people. "We feel we work for an individual, not a company," observes Laker stewardess Janice Wright. "Sir Freddie is a man we can all identify with." The motorists passing by the Downing Street demonstration proved that by shouting and honking their horns to express support. "He always felt he had the people behind him," says Sir Freddie's press secretary, Robin Flood. "Now that he has seen his obituary before he is dead, he knows for sure that the public does care."