Death of a Salesman

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The infamous Sir Freddie Laker in front of one of his Laker Airways planes. Pictured at Gatwick in 1996.

Last year budget airlines carried almost 70 million passengers to and from the UK but thirty years ago things were very different. While “well off” passengers were being pampered by the likes of British Caledonian, British Airways and Pan American, the rest could only dream of joining the jet-set until Sir Freddie Laker revolutionized the skies with the first “no-frills” airline, Laker Airways.

I first heard of Laker Airways when I was just a kid; my parents flew with them on their first holiday together to Ibiza in the early 1970s. Laker Airways’ long-haul arm Skytrain however, was launched in the autumn of 1977 and it had just one route; London Gatwick to New York-JFK. There were no advanced bookings and most certainly no “online” bookings/check-in’s/apps back then, passengers had to queue up at the airport for their ticket. The low-priced fares to cross the Atlantic made Sir Freddie one of the first “celebrity entrepreneurs” of our time. Skytrain made a profit within its first year and Sir Freddie placed orders for more wide-bodied DC-10 planes which were the preferred option for Skytrain plus more routes were soon added to Florida and California.

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Laker Airways Skytrain DC-10. Photo Credit: Adrian Bridges

As Sir Freddie’s airline grew, so did his confidence but not everyone was impressed; namely the “big boy” airlines. Skytrain launched well and was operating successfully but Sir Freddie didn’t want to stop there, he could see opportunities with an outlook of launching Skytrain into a global “no frills” airline. But it was that sky-high ambition that would take his business in to turbulence.

Laker Airways doubled in size in just five short years, adding more planes and carrying over two million passengers – this put Laker Airways on a collision course with it’s competitors. As the eighties arrived and recession hit Britain, Skytrain looked dangerously over stretched. The worsen exchange rate and fuel prices rising meant that Laker faced spiraling costs at the same time as revenues were falling and being an airline built on low fares this made it particularly hard to rise prices to make up the difference.

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Skytrain Ticket

Sir Freddie had ploughed money in to the airline’s expansion that meant it had very little left in reserve. Laker’s competitors had cut their prices on all of Sir Freddie’s routes. By 1982, the bank called in its multi-million pound overdraft. The airline went bankrupt on 5 February 1982 and Sir Freddie’s dreams were shattered as so were those of his staff and passengers. Laker Airways collapsed with debts of over £270 million – at the time – making it the biggest corporate failure in British history. Sir Freddie soon waged war against the likes of British Airways, BCAL, United, Lufthansa, KLM and Pan Am calling his demise as a “dirty tricks campaign” by his competitors who clubbed together to put him out of business. He settled out of court in the mid-Eighties but the fearsome dog-eat-dog war of the airlines was felt far and wide especially by Virgin Atlantic who would face a similar “dirty tricks” battle with BA in their early years as well.

First class entrepreneurs raise the bar to drive things forward every time, which is good, that’s why they are first class but it does come at a cost; it makes them the worst people at judging their own limits and those of their businesses. So when things do go well it can be fantastic. When things go badly it can be tragic.

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Sir Freddie Laker 1922-2006

Laker Airways operated from 1966 to 1982 and for a brief period again in the UK from 1996 to 1998.

References:-

Eglin, Roger; Ritchie, Berry (1980). Fly me, I’m Freddie. London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Airliner World – The Laker Airways Skytrain, July 2005. Avenel, NJ, USA: Key Publishing. (Airliner World online)

 

The Orange Ocean

Air Europe, Boeing 737-400

When we think of air travel in the UK now days, we think of “no frills”, “buy on board”, “pre-paid seats”, “hold baggage” and more notably, “easyJet”. Starting from humble beginnings out of London Luton Airport, easyJet has expanded dramatically since it’s inception in 1995, having grown out of a number acquisitions and consumer demand for low-cost air travel. The colour orange has been synonymous with easyJet’s brand identity and livery from day one and that sea of orange continues to spread across Gatwick’s apron like an open ocean as new routes are continuously added and the aircraft fleet is updated and expanded, making Gatwick the airline’s largest base.

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easyJet. Photo Credit: Traveloution

However, easyJet was not the first orange bird to grace Gatwick with their presence, if anything easyJet follows a legacy of expansion and development from a predecessor whose orange tails dominated Gatwick’s South Terminal by the early nineties and set the tone of what air travel was to become by the twenty-first century. It’s hard to know where to begin with this now legendary airline, its name itself has come to represent a whole industry that has since tried to match its excellence, so it’s probably best to simply start there – Air Europe.

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Air Europe at Gatwick in the late 1980s. Photo Credit: Unknown

Like easyJet, Air Europe started out in humble beginnings with three Boeing 737-200 aircraft (the same aircraft type easyJet set up with) in May 1979. The airline’s main supplier of charter seats was for package holiday tour operator, Intasun which grew and expanded in the eighties. And just like easyJet, Air Europe soon grew to become Gatwick’s dominate scheduled short-haul operator (along with Dan-Air, following British Caledonian’s take-over). Air Europe acquired 45% of Gatwick’s take-off and landing slots, not bad for an airline still in its infancy. Once again, just like easyJet, Air Europe became a pan-European airline, setting up subsidiaries elsewhere in Europe: Air Europa of Spain (which still lives on today) and Air Europe Italy. Air Europe also acquired two smaller domestic airlines, which in turn formed the nucleus of a new Air Europe Express regional airline subsidiary and by the end of the eighties, having over taken stalwart Dan-Air, Air Europe became Gatwick’s largest operator.

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Air Europe Boarding Pass. Photo Credit: Cupojuices

Sadly, Air Europe’s success was to come to an abrupt end. The airline’s parent company, International Leisure Group (ILG) ran in to financial difficulties and this was heightened more by the Gulf War and the recession of the early nineties. Air Europe went bankrupt in March 1991, ending just 12 short years of rapid success.

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Air Europe dominated Gatwick. Photo Credit: Unknown

It would be a further 11 years before Gatwick would see any drop of orange again. Already slowly rising over the past 7 years, 2002 saw easyJet move in to Gatwick to test out the “no-frills” concept of air travel in one of the airline’s biggest moves. Having acquired GO (a low-cost airline set up by British Airways) and later GB Airways, easyJet quickly grew in the noughties; dominating both North and South Terminals; the sea of orange was back in a new form. No longer an ocean spreading, this was a tsunami hurdling towards its competition. Where Air Europe failed, easyJet was to succeed; adopting a cost-cutting measure such as not selling connecting flights or providing complimentary snacks on board. The key points of this business model are quick turnaround times, charging for extras such as priority boarding, hold baggage, and of course, food and drink.

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The Orange Ocean: easyJet

And so, as another decade draws to a close, its easyJet that now carries the torch as Gatwick’s dominate airline. Flying to over 100 destinations and carrying more than 16 million passengers per year, it’s hard not to think of Air Europe and what they started almost forty years ago, for if it wasn’t for Air Europe would easyJet even exist today? One thing is for certain, the sea of orange is not going anywhere anytime soon and although troubled waters have swept ashore this past year with the demise of Monarch Airlines and Air Berlin, the Orange Ocean continues to deepen.

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easyJet Airbus A321neo

Air Europe was founded in May 1979 and ceased operations in March 1991. easyJet began operations in March 1995 and continues to fly today.

Writer’s BLOC

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Me, completely glued to the view from our suite at the BLOC Hotel, Gatwick

With a holiday booked to Malta in the late summer of 2017 and a very early morning flight (6:30am to be precise) with British Airways from London’s Gatwick Airport, I was dreading that 3am wake up call that I’ve never been accustomed to. Imagine my amazement getting a phone call from my other half to say that he’s arranged a little treat; a night at the BLOC Hotel, located slap bang on the top of the South Terminal Gatwick. Okay, so it might not be everyone’s idea of a romantic evening in a plush hotel but for any plane geek like me, this was just what the doctor ordered.

Having first opened it’s doors in 2014, the hotel is a renovated office block, with four floors and 245 rooms – and we were booked into the “Runway Suite”. With it’s stunning views across the airport’s apron and single-runway, I was in my element. The interior of this quirky modern hotel is also cutting edge for the everyday traveler passing through the airport.

As soon as we arrived, I was glued to the window of our room – a panoramic view – watching the comings and goings of the variety of aircraft carriers that Gatwick hosts. While the other half cracked open the beers from the mini-bar and bedded down for the evening (he’s not a plane geek), I could not tear myself away from the view. I was transfixed at seeing British Airways, Norwegian, Thomas Cook Airlines and Monarch (RIP) to name a few lined up.

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“The Runway Suite” at the BLOC Hotel, Gatwick. Photo Credit: helloworldtravel_rob

This exact same view I had not seen for at least twenty years and it would send me straight back to my childhood. For as long as I can remember my dad took me to Gatwick’s then spectators viewing platform and there walking out on that deck I could smell the jet fumes, the vibrating sounds of the different aircraft types and seeing the tails of the likes of British Caledonian, Dan-Air, Air Europe, Air New Zealand lined up. This was Gatwick in the eighties and I loved it.

Looking out at the view from our room and slightly below us, I could see the now defunct viewing platform. Having closed down almost 18 years ago, the canteen and plane enthusiast shop were both boarded up and the deck that was once jammed packed full of spectators was sadly empty and looking abandoned. As I peered down at the platform, images of the past came back; my dad picking me up and putting me on his shoulders, pointing at the various aircraft: “Look Bob, British Caledonian”, he would say. Or “Cover your ears, it’s going to get noisy”. Although slightly tinged with sadness, I loved the memories flooding back and it is thanks to my dad that I have this life-long obsession of planes.

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1980’s Gatwick, the Viewing Platform. Photo Credit: Longreach

Living, working and breathing in London can at times, be stressful and hectic to say the least. The majority that live and ride the violent jolt of the capital will no doubt say the same, so for me thinking about planes, seeing planes keeps me grounded (if you excuse the pun). They calm my nerves and help with my anxieties – just a simple thing like that. I recently told a friend this and her advice was: “If this helps, then keep doing what you’re doing, keep collecting the model planes, keep traveling on planes and going to airports, it’s the tonic you need”. Those words have now stuck.

And so back to the BLOC; watching a Norwegian 787 push back, an Azores Airlines A320 land, an Emirates A380 take-off, I was able to forget; forget about the stresses of what life can sometimes bring. So really this is a huge thank you to my dad for what he started back then and to my other half (even though planes are not his thing) – for what he continues to do, he knew what he was doing when he booked the BLOC.

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The view from “The Runway Suite” at BLOC Hotel, Gatwick. Photo Credit: Simon Kent

Prices at the BLOC Hotel Gatwick can start at around £100 per night depending on which room/suite you intend to book. 

For further details please visit:- BLOC Hotels Gatwick

A Crown Service

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Mum, me, aunt & uncle having just landed on a Monarch Airlines’ flight to Heraklion, Crete in 1989

On the morning of 2nd October 2017, I woke up to the news that I had been dreading all weekend – Monarch Airlines had ceased to operate and went into administration. Just one week earlier I had flown in to London Gatwick after holidaying in Malta and there, as usual, lined up on the main pier at Gatwick’s South Terminal was at least a dozen Airbus A320 and A321 Monarch aircraft parked next to an assortment of British Airways, Norwegian and Thomas Cook Airlines. As I was taxing past them (on board a British Airways flight), little did I know then that the airline was already heavily in the “red” and that this would be the last time I would ever see the “Spotty M” make it’s appearance at Gatwick.

1989 was the year that I first flew on a Monarch Airlines aircraft myself from LGW to Heraklion, Crete. I was so excited to be acquainted with this bird, a Boeing 757-200; we boarded via the steps on a remote stand at Gatwick’s shiny brand-new North Terminal. I can still remember us being parked next to an identical B757 Monarch aircraft which was also boarding a hoard of passengers heading for sunnier climes – this was one airline that was doing so well in Thatcher’s Britain. I managed to persuade my dad to buy me the snap-fit model aircraft on board (along with a baseball cap with “GATWICK” sprawled across the front in the airport earlier). When we landed at Heraklion Airport, stepping out on to the hot tarmac, I was too shy to ask a Monarch stewardess for a photograph, who was saying her goodbyes to passengers (they did this on the tarmac in the 80s) – having managed to take a sneaky pic instead, her head was unfortunately cut out  – nonetheless, I loved the whole experience.

My next encounter with Monarch would be in the summer of 1994 to Antayla, Turkey. Again, a Boeing 757-200, this time from Gatwick’s South Terminal (they switched from North to South around 1991/92) and boarding this time was from the Satellite gate. Still in love with this airline, I bought another snap-fit model aircraft and my passion grew. By the mid-90s they had surpassed their great piers; Dan-Air, British Caledonian and Air Europe. As the years past, other airlines such as Excalibur Airways, Ambassador, Air 2000 and XL Airways came and went but Monarch however, kept on going. 2012 would be the final time that I would fly with Monarch; an Airbus A300 from Manchester Airport to Sharm el Shiek, Egypt – what a great experience to get the opportunity to fly this old bird there and back. Unbeknown to me then, this would be the beginning of the end for Monarch and me.

And so, two days before their collapse, I was working out in the gym and the TV screen above my head had the BBC News switched on with the headline: “Breaking News – Monarch Airlines Facing Administration”. A constant loop of film footage showing the aircraft landing at Gatwick, I was in disbelief, suddenly I had forgotten all about my workout and kept asking myself lots of questions: they were saved by Greybull a year ago, they have ordered new Boeing 737-8 MAX aircraft, the cabin crew will be getting new uniforms, I saw them lined up a week ago at Gatwick without a hint of trouble – this cannot possibly be happening right? A cousin of mine was due to fly with Monarch to Dalaman, Turkey on that very fateful morning of 2nd October – I reassured him that his flight would be fine and it was just media hype, just like the response he got from Monarch via Facebook.

Then, at 03:19am, Monarch Airlines’ final flight from Tel Aviv, Israel to Manchester Airport touched down. Shortly afterwards at approximately 04:00am, the CAA confirmed that Monarch Airlines had ceased operations with immediate effect and had entered administration. As I was fast asleep when Monarch was taking it’s last breath, my poor cousin had already arrived at Gatwick expecting to board his flight. As soon as I saw the notification on my phone that morning I was glued to the breakfast news. This was an airline I had known my entire 36 years of existence, it was like a friend had died, grief set in but the wonderful memories of those years traveling with Monarch came flooding back.

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Photo Credit: Ray Woodman & the Facebook Group – “Monarch Airlines”

The airline’s demise; competing in a growing market of low-fares, no frills travel, set them apart from the rest but sadly Monarch’s turnaround to follow suit was too little and too late. While the likes of easyJet now dominating flights to and across Europe, Monarch began to struggle; hit hard by the rising cost of fuel prices, a weakened pound and terrorist attacks on prime holiday hot-spots such as Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey, the writing was on the wall for “Spotty M”. And while I’m still sad at their demise, the memories live on forever; great experiences both on the ground and in the air, all of which will never be forgotten. Sleep tight Monarch, you reigned supreme longer than any other charter airline in the UK and for that, I salute you.

Monarch Airlines was founded on 5 June 1967 and ceased operations on 2 October 2017