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Sir Freddie Laker: From Canterbury schoolboy to millionaire pioneer of budget airlines


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In 1936, an English teacher stood before a class of pupils at a grammar school in Kent and asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

There were a host of predictable answers; mechanics, train drivers and engineers.

Freddie Laker in 1974 as he battled to get his Skytrain service in the skies. Picture: PA
Freddie Laker in 1974 as he battled to get his Skytrain service in the skies. Picture: PA

But one 14-year-old pupil in that classroom at the Simon Langton School for Boys in Canterbury, had loftier ambitions.

"I want to be a millionaire," he told his classmates. They roared with laughter, quipping he couldn't even do well in his lessons, let alone the big wide world.

A little over 40 years later the man who described himself as a "numbskull" while at school, had not only delivered on his promise, but had been knighted too and become a household name.

Not bad for a boy who grew up in a broken home where money was tight and his mother was forced to scrimp and save in order to afford the five guineas a term in an era where secondary education still came at a cost. But this was no regular young man.

Welcome to the remarkable world of Sir Freddie Laker.

Canterbury as it looked back in 1936 when Freddie Laker was growing up
Canterbury as it looked back in 1936 when Freddie Laker was growing up

From classroom boasts, he would become one of the most influential aviation entrepreneurs in a career which, while experiencing plenty of turbulence along the way, would transform access to air travel for millions by slashing the prices charged by the big established airlines and making him into something of a folk hero.

It was his trailblazing during the 1970s which would pave the way for the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet.

He was a larger than life character who appeared in his own TV and newspaper adverts - such was the power of his personality; he struck deals with the most powerful figures on Earth; enraged the biggest airline companies and governments; and ultimately saw his company implode. Yet he would bounce back and go on to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs - most notably Sir Richard Branson.

So how did a cheeky teenager become such a tour de force in the world of passenger travel?

Born in 1922 in Canterbury - the same year his parents married at Canterbury Registry Office - he had a troubled start to life.

Freddie Laker on a visit to Rochester in 1977
Freddie Laker on a visit to Rochester in 1977

An only child, his father, a merchant seaman, abandoned him and his mother when he was just five.

"It's not a secret," he would later reveal, "that I am the product of a broken home.

"We lived in a two-up-two-down cottage with no bathroom - the coal cupboard was under the stairs.

"When I was five and did something wrong my father would lock me in the coal cupboard. My mother was out and I stayed in there for I don't know how long. It made me afraid of the dark for years.”

His poor treatment would not last for long. "He just upped and left us," he revealed.

Sir Richard Branson cited Sir Freddie Laker as one of his mentors. Picture: @richardbranson/Twitter
Sir Richard Branson cited Sir Freddie Laker as one of his mentors. Picture: @richardbranson/Twitter

It was a departure from his life which Laker would never forgive. When his father passed away he refused to attend his funeral and described him as "a nothing man".

"I'm not sorry he died," he would later remark during an interview with the New York Times.

The complete opposite, in fact, to the man who would become his father figure.

By the time he was eight, his mother – who he adored and held in the highest respect - had started seeing a Cornishman by the surname of Allin who would go out of his way to make sure he helped young Freddie.

“He was a wonderful man," Laker would later say, "I loved him. You know what he did to make things easy for me? He changed his name to Laker. I didn't know what to call him right off, but I loved him so, I wanted to call him something. So I called him ‘Dear'. and it stuck. He was an educated man. He came from quite a different world from my mother's — she really had been very poor — but he fell in love with her and always loved her."

The Hindenburg - the German airship which Laker saw over Canterbury when he was a teenager
The Hindenburg - the German airship which Laker saw over Canterbury when he was a teenager

It was during this time, as his life took a happier twist, that he had something of an epiphany as he stood close to Canterbury Cathedral and looked into the skies.

It was around 1936 when he saw the German airship the Hindenburg fly overhead as it crossed with a Handley Page biplane.

Firing his teenage imagination, he says it would ignite a fascination with aircraft and mechanics - which he would pursue by helping at a scrap metal yard run by his uncles, developing a knowledge of how bikes and cars worked.

Ditching school at 16 - he had demonstrated his entrepreneurial spirit while at the grammar by running the school tuckshop (“I did well at that," he would reflect, "I organised it properly, and it made money, and, of course, I got my sweets free.”) - he joined Short Brothers, the flying-boat makers in Rochester.

His first jobs? Sweeping the floors and making the tea.

The Short Brothers factory in Rochester where a young Freddie Laker worked
The Short Brothers factory in Rochester where a young Freddie Laker worked

When war was declared he joined the Air Transport Auxiliary - which serviced aircraft - and it was there he became a qualified pilot, achieving one of his career ambitions before he'd turned 20.

He then worked briefly for British European Airways before his big opportunity to branch out occured when he bumped into a former business associate in a pub.

A £38,000 loan later, and Laker snapped up 12 former bombers used during the war effort and converted them into freight aircraft. In 1948 they flew over 4,000 sorties - with Laker piloting many of them - during the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift and made, as Laker later reflected "a lot of money". It is estimated he made around £400,000. That loan was quickly settled.

From there his rise became meteoric. He moved on to fly cars and their owners between Southend and Calais, before selling up and eventually ending up as MD of British United Airways.

But in 1966 he left to set up Laker Airways - a firm which would become a household name.

Laker Airways' impact on air travel should not be underestimated
Laker Airways' impact on air travel should not be underestimated

It purchased a fleet of aircraft used as charter flights by holiday companies, with Laker latching on to offering tour operators big discounts for off-season holidays, helping to fuel a rise in year-round jaunts to European destinations - while ensuring the money kept rolling in year-round.

But his biggest move was yet to come.

His new airline started offering transatlantic flights but Laker's big ambition was to undercut the prices with a 'no-frills, turn up on the day and book' approach - something unheard of then and hard to imagine in today's climate.

By increasing the speed his craft reached their cruising height, keeping passenger numbers below capacity and cutting the weight of luggage permitted, it kept costs down.

Skytrain was years in the making and in 1977 - after he secured permission from US President Jimmy Carter - it took off for the first time heading to New York.

The Laker Airways' Skytrain. Picture: Eduard Marmet
The Laker Airways' Skytrain. Picture: Eduard Marmet

Gone were free food and drinks and in were fares around a third of those offered by the big established - and as he would learn, powerful - airlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

First announced in 1971 to great fanfare and excitement from those for whom travelling such distances had previously been out of financial reach, he faced years of battles with the US and UK authorities amid huge pressure from the likes of British Airways, TWA and Pan Am.

Given permission in 1973 - the same year he flew a new DC-10 aircraft into Manston where he met his mother on the tarmac - the power of his competitors forced the UK government to withdraw its support and a messy legal battle through the High Court followed. But it ruled in his favour and four years later it finally took off.

In 1978 a service to Los Angeles was announced and proved, once again, that discounted travel was an attractive one.

Services to Florida followed and the ability to book in advance - at a price half of some of his main competitors - saw Laker Airways become one of the biggest in the world.

Laker Airways offered cut-price air flights to New York and other US cities
Laker Airways offered cut-price air flights to New York and other US cities

Not only had he delivered on his boast of becoming a millionaire, but as the 1980s dawned, he was employing more than 2,000 staff too through his airline and his various associated companies. He was the one laughing then.

He was even knighted by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1978.

But it would not last.

In 1981 a recession hit which would see the value of the pound plunge. Coupled with his competitors being forced to match his low fares - despite meaning many were forced to run at a loss - Laker Airways found the debts starting to mount as the competition intensified.

Let down by bankers he thought he could rely on, a business-model based only on discounted travel and a global recession, the short-lived Skytrain dream was grounded forever in February 1982 with debts the equivalent of close to £900m in today's money. Folkestone-based Saga was one of those to buy up its remains.

Freddie Laker was the very public face of his airline company as this advert from 1981 shows
Freddie Laker was the very public face of his airline company as this advert from 1981 shows

Back in court, three years later he was awarded £6 million from his competitors and his creditors paid off for their role in his airline's collapse.

"I had 29 airlines ganged up against me," he would later say. "You can say what you like about Margaret Thatcher, but I was her icon when she was talking about competition. 'Look at Laker Airways, competition pays', she would say. But, of course, as soon as the heat was put on, she got me kicked out."

He jetted out of the UK to live and work in the Bahamas before dramatically making a return to the limelight in the mid-1990s with plans to relaunch Laker Airways with cheap flights to Florida. But it failed to capture the imagination and fizzled out.

Having moved to see out his final years in the Sunshine State, he died in 2006, in Miami, aged 83.

In an interview just four years before his death he reflected on the boom in budget airlines which had inspired.

Laker Airways paved the way for the current crop of budget airlines
Laker Airways paved the way for the current crop of budget airlines

He said: "I think it's great, but if you think about this low-fare operation in Europe and even the US, it's still on short-haul journeys. There's no-one with a dedicated low-fares operation across the Atlantic."

Perhaps they had learned from his costly battles.

EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou called him a “true pioneer” adding: "His battle with British Airways was a watershed in the development of the more liberalised environment that has led to the growth of low-cost flying."

Richard Branson had sought his advice when he launched his Virgin Atlantic service and reflected he "wouldn’t have got anywhere in the airline industry without the mentorship of Sir Freddie Laker".

As for his parents?

His step-father died in 1967. His mother, Hannah, died at Ramsgate Hospital, at the age of 79, in 1979. She and her son - by then one of the most famous businessmen in the UK - remained close, although she kept her feet firmly on the ground.

She lived her final years in an apartment in Belmont Road in Ramsgate which her son had bought for her, where she would often go to play bingo or to Dumpton Park greyhound track - where she owned a racing dog.

“I always thank fate for what I was,” Laker would say in 1977, “it taught me the biggest lesson; that nobody should ever have to live like we did — two up, two down, outside lavatory and no bathroom. I have never cared about social differences, and I have no time for people who do.”

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