Archives Hub feature for August 2023
The summer months of June, July and August were prime flying season for Laker Airways – though significant discounts were offered to operators in the off-season, too. The man behind this pioneering budget airline was Sir Freddie Laker who recognised the inaccessibility of air travel for the general public, and identified a gap in the market dominated by British Airways and Pan Am. He subsequently founded Laker Airways and its multiple subsidiaries, which allowed tens of thousands of people to fly transatlantic for the very first time. His legacy paved the way for Ryanair, Virgin, and easyJet and today we take the ability to get cheap plane tickets for granted. Now, the archive documenting the rise and demise of the airline is available to the public at West Sussex Record Office.
What’s in the archive?
The archive consists of around 700 files including correspondence, financial records, reports, publicity, and photographs. The other significant part is the vast amount of press cuttings, in fact 135 files of them, spanning 1974 to 1983. These records document the core activities of not just Laker Airways but also its many subsidiaries including the famous Skytrain Holidays and various other business ventures of Sir Freddie’s such as Aviation Traders, TeleTix, and Jaffcom.
But the archive doesn’t just concern Sir Freddie’s core business activities, there are a significant number of personal papers concerning his family, his home, and the management of Woodcote Stud – an animal breeding venture which bridged a hobby and a business for Sir Freddie.
Perhaps for many the most interesting items in the archive relate to the demise of Laker Airways in the early 1980s. There are numerous financial reports, forecasts, legal papers and affidavits concerning the landmark anti-trust lawsuit brought by Laker against British Airways (BA), Pan Am, TWA, Lufthansa, Air France, Swissair, KLM, SAS, Sabena, Alitalia and UTA.
Sir Freddie Laker and Laker Airways
Sir Freddie began his career in the aviation industry in his early twenties by founding Aviation Traders, a business established in 1947 which traded in surplus aircraft and parts which were plentiful after the end of the Second World War. In 1951 he acquired the airline Air Charter. Not content with just that, Sir Freddie also established Colrich Audio Ltd with his wife Joan around the same time, a company which manufactured records in stereo sound.
Air Charter and Aviation Traders were ultimately absorbed into British United Airways (BUA), of which Sir Freddie became its very first Managing Director when it was founded in 1960. By the time BUA was sold off to Caledonia Airways in 1970, Laker Airways had been established for four years. The archive attests to Sir Freddie’s tenacious approach to identifying opportunity during this period.
Initially, Laker Airways worked as a charter airline, meaning that they rented aircraft and recouped the money by selling fares for seats. They acquired their own fleet of planes a little later on. But Laker Airways was the foundation for the most lucrative but most short lived of Sir Freddie’s aeronautical ventures – Skytrain Holidays.
The Skytrain plane was iconic during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Announced in 1971, Skytrain was a wing of the main company and was created to market cheap transatlantic flights between Gatwick and JFK Airport in New York. The archive includes a press release given at the Savoy Hotel in London, along with a press list. However, it took several years to get permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to operate and it wasn’t until 1977 that the first Skytrain flight took place. Sir Freddie understood the importance of branding and publicity, and the archive has many examples such as a tiny souvenir model Skytrain DC-10, model kits of Skytrain A300s, gaudy summer brochures, and a commemorative certificate for the first Skytrain passenger flight.
Fast forward to 1981, and Laker Airways was suffering under the recession. Along with the recession and some poorly constructed financial forecasts, the final blow was the sudden drop in fare prices by competing airlines including BA and Pan Am. Laker Airways collapsed in 1982 and was declared bankrupt. It remains one of the biggest corporate failures in Britain. What followed was a landmark lawsuit through which Sir Freddie accused several of the biggest airlines of predatory pricing, but it was settled out of court.
The archive preserves the legacy of Sir Freddie Laker and Laker Airways, two significant aspects of British cultural heritage and the history of aviation. The archive has previously been used by authors writing books on Sir Freddie and Laker Airways, and it is hoped it will continue to inform researchers at its new home at West Sussex Record Office.
West Sussex Record Office
Sir Freddie Laker, 1950-2015
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