Air Freddie

updated 12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1992 01:00AM

IT WAS ONLY AN 18-MINUTE FLIGHT—A puddle jump really—from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport in the Bahamas. But for Britain's Sir Freddie Laker, 70, climbing aboard a 727 emblazoned with his name, it was a return trip 10 years in the making. "I'm retired from the retired club," he says of his phoenixlike rebirth. "I love this business!"

If Laker felt even more bubbly than the celebratory champagne that day last May. he had good reason. Just a decade before, bankruptcy had grounded his popular Skytrain fleet of jets and ended his reign as the king of cut-rate air travel. For five years, that original no-reservations, no-frills air service had ferried passengers across the Atlantic for a third the cost of regular airfares, making Laker a people's hero and an industry pariah. Though he had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to the country, a ruinous price war with competitors eventually drove him out of the skies and, presumably, into retirement.

Laker, however, would once again prove to have more bounce than a biplane in high winds. He toyed with the idea of kicking back but couldn't contain his entrepreneurial impulse. In 1982 he began consulting for several companies, most notably Princess Hotels International. Once again he flew in the face of conventional wisdom by urging the chain to offer summer excursions to its Bahamas properties. "They said, 'Americans do not come to the Bahamas in summer, do not buy three-and four-day holidays and won't fly at night,' " Laker recalls. "But Americans do buy three-and four-day holidays, they will fly at night, and they do visit the Bahamas in summer. In fact, we now fly more people there in summer than we do in the winter!"

Sir Freddie made his return to the skies earlier this year when the airline contracting the Princess charters upped their prices. Deciding he could do the job better himself, Laker found two backers—Houston oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt and Bahamian businessman Edward St. George—and set up shop on his 80-foot yacht, the Jacqueline. (The boat is named after Laker's fourth wife, Jacqueline, a 40ish former flight attendant he met on Air Florida in 1982 and married three years later.)

Laker's original airborne inspiration was the sight of the ill-fated dirigible Hindenburg flying over his hometown of Canterbury, England, in 1936. At 16, Laker, the son of a merchant seaman and a housewife, left school to launch his aviation career as a sweeper and teaboy for a company that made flying boats (cousins of the seaplane). After night school and a World War II stint flying transports with the Royal Air Force, he formed his first airline in 1948, flying government charters and passengers on packaged vacations.

In 1971, Laker tried to launch Sky-train, a bare-bones transatlantic service that didn't accept reservations, charged extra for food and cut fares dramatically. After battling a string of legal actions from would-be competitors and bureaucratic roadblocks from U.S. and British government agencies, he finally got off the ground six years later. Sky train was an instant success. But Laker charged in a subsequent $1.5 billion antitrust suit against 10 airlines that carriers on both sides of the Atlantic colluded to slash their own fares just long enough to force him out of business.

After a 3½-year legal battle during which his bank auctioned off the airline's assets, Laker accepted a $48 million settlement in 1985. That was enough to pay off his creditors and fulfill all of his employees' contracts and pension plans and still net 88 million for himself. Though it was far from the amount he had sought, Laker says he was satisfied. "Suppose I had gone into court and lost. Can you imagine what people would say?" he asks. " 'That horrible greedy Laker...he really wasn't interested in the little guy like he always claimed.' I was much more interested that everyone, everyone, everyone should be paid."

Despite the late nights it has taken to get his new venture aloft, Laker promises not to neglect fun and family as he did in the past. He and Jacqui, his chief aide-de-camp, divide their lime between the yacht, a Mediterranean-style condo on plush Fisher Island, near Miami Beach, and a 490-year-old mansion in Sussex, England. His son, Freddie Allen Laker, 15, lives in Miami with Laker's third wife and frequently goes snorkeling with dad. (Laker also has a daughter, Elaine, a homemaker with two children, in Surrey, England.) "We talk on the phone virtually every day," says Laker of his son, "and his first question is, 'How is the family airline, Dad?' "

Very well, it seems. In December Laker Airways (Bahamas) Ltd. will add a third plane, and in February a fourth may join the fleet. By then, boasts Laker, there will be 75 flights from the U.S. to Freeport each week. Laker says he's having too good a time to gloat over the fate of his former adversaries^ some now out of business themselves. The important thing, he says, is that he emerged with his reputation intact—and that people still love him.

"Here we are 10 years later flying our funny airplanes," he says. "And people come aboard and say, 'Well done, Fred, lovely to see you back.' "

PAM LAMBERT
CINDY DAMPIER in Miami

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