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)

 

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