Sir Freddie [Frederick] Alfred Laker was born on 6th August 1922 in Canterbury, Kent, to able seaman Frederick Henry and Hannah Laker (nee Todd). Hannah raised Freddie largely by herself, whilst also working as a scrap dealer and later a shop keeper.
After a self-confessed terrible time at school, Freddie joined the Short Brothers as an apprentice aged 16, where he learned the basics of areo-engineering. Unfortunately, the Short Brothers factory was bombed in 1940, ending his apprenticeship early. Unwilling to be transferred elsewhere, Freddie joined the Air Transport Auxiliary Corps (ATA). There he met test pilot Arnold Wilson, who taught him to fly aircraft. It was also around this time that Freddie met his first wife Joan Stallwood at a dance; they married on 10th May 1942 and had a daughter called Elaine in 1944.
After leaving the ATA in 1946, Freddie embarked on a number of money-making ventures, before settling on the creation of Aviation Traders in October 1947. Aviation Traders bought and sold aircraft parts and converted surplus aircraft for the benefit of the company. The company benefitted financially from the Berlin Airlift between 1948 and 1949, during which they used their stock of converted cargo planes to fly supplies into East Berlin. After the blockade ended, Aviation Traders turned to dealing in scrap.
In 1951, Freddie bought the company Air Charter which had been formed in 1947 and was an airline. It was the first that Freddie was involved with, and he oversaw its inaugural ferry service between Southend and Calais in 1955. Air Charter was later absorbed into British United Airways, a company that Aviation Traders was allied with in the 1960s. Aviation Traders and Air Charter were both sold in 1959, and they joined the Airwork Group.
British United Airways (BUA) formed from a merger of several airline companies in 1960. Freddie became its first Managing Director and remained in that position until 1965. Under Freddie’s leadership, BUA developed into a competitor to British European Airways (BEA) and British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) who had previously monopolised the airline industry. Its main operating base was Gatwick from which they ran long and short haul commercial flights. During his time at BUA, Freddie’s son Kevin died as a result of a car crash.
Laker Airways was formed in 1966 as a wholesale airline that dealt with package tour operators. It became known for its cost-cutting measures which enabled many people to fly transatlantic who otherwise would have been unable to. The airline used existing BEA aeroplanes as well as Freddie’s own money to purchase their fleet, with a consortium of banks led by Clydesdale financing the remainder.
It was through Laker Airways that Freddie introduced Skytrain Holidays. This service flew passengers from London to New York, and was the very first airline to offer such a service for low-cost fares. However, getting approval for Skytrain was difficult, and Laker faced opposition from other airlines as well as government ministers. Skytrain’s application was not approved until 1977. The following year, Laker was awarded a knighthood by the then Labour government.
Despite immense popularity with the public, Laker Airways went bankrupt in 1982. A range of reasons have been cited for this downturn. However, a key factor was destructive price-matching by other airlines, such as Pan-Am and British Airways. Laker sued airlines belonging to the International Air Transport Association under antitrust law for predatory pricing. The case was settled out of court in 1985.
In later life, Sir Freddie's extensive experience in the aviation industry, and his expertise regarding low-cost travel, proved indispensible to entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Atlantic, and Stelios Haji-Ioannou with easyJet.