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Sir Freddie Laker, at 83; low-cost airline pioneer

MIAMI -- Sir Freddie Laker, who changed the face of air travel with his low-cost trans-Atlantic Skytrain service that challenged the industry giants in the 1970s, has died. He was 83.

Sir Laker pioneered the concept of cheap fares for the masses, and although his Skytrain venture eventually collapsed in 1982, he laid the foundations for the low-cost carriers that proliferate today.

He died Thursday at a hospital in Hollywood, Fla., said Mary Maino, managing director of Laker Airways/Bahamas Ltd., yesterday. Laker Airways/Bahamas was liquidated in August.

Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson, who named one of the planes in his fleet ''Spirit of Sir Freddie" in tribute, said the ebullient Sir Laker was one of Britain's greatest entrepreneurs.

''He was a larger-than-life figure, with a wicked sense of humor, and a great friend," Branson said.

Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary said the industry had lost ''one of its greatest pilots," while easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou said Sir Laker was ''a true pioneer who inspired all of us in aviation to hang on in there."

Sir Laker set up the innovative Skytrain service in 1977, giving passengers the chance to fly across the Atlantic as easily as catching a train. No bookings were required, and if a flight filled up, passengers waited for the next one.

After winning hard-fought approval from governments on both sides of the Atlantic, the first Skytrain from London to New York took off in 1977 in a blaze of positive publicity. As with today's low-cost carriers, passengers had to pay extra for food and drink.

However, the six largest airlines operating between the United States and Britain -- British Airways, Pan Am, TWA, Air India, Iran Air and El Al -- colluded to oppose the new service.

When Skytrain's parent Laker Airways ran into debt problems and was hit by the falling value of the pound, Pan Am's decision to cut its economy fares by 66 percent effectively finished off the budget airline.

Embracing the venture as an underdog, the public donated more than $1 million to keep the business afloat, but Laker Airways collapsed in February 1982.

Three years later, the British courts ruled that other airlines had used illegal price pressure on the company. British Airways and other airlines were ordered to pay Sir Laker about $6 million and settle claims with his creditors.

Branson said that Sir Laker's experience taught him a valuable lesson.

''He gave me a lot of very useful advice when I set up Virgin Atlantic 21 years ago," Branson said. ''Perhaps his best advice was to make sure that I took BA to court before they bankrupted us -- not after, as he did."

After being a media celebrity for 20 years during his David and Goliath fight with both governments and major corporations, Sir Laker virtually vanished from public life when his company failed.

He bounced back in November 1995, announcing the return of Laker Airways, flying a twice-weekly service between London and Florida, with Laker Vacations offering more than 20,000 holidays in the United States.

But the trans-Atlantic services never really got going, and Sir Laker was reduced to flying a limited operation between the United States and the Bahamas. Services ceased altogether in late 2004.

In an interview with the BBC in 2002, Sir Laker applauded the low-cost operators that followed him but said it was sad that none had gone as far as he did.

Sir Laker got his start in the airline industry sweeping floors at an aircraft factory in Kent, south England. He went on to study aero-engineering and served in the Royal Air Force Transport Auxiliary before going into business for himself as a war-surplus aircraft dealer.

In 1958 his various companies merged and eventually became British United Airways, with Sir Laker as managing director. Six years later he achieved his dream of owning his own airline with Laker Airways.

Sir Laker, who was knighted in 1978, is survived by his fourth wife Jacqueline, who lives on Grand Bahama Island, and his son Freddie and daughter Elaine.

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