Will Sir Freddie Laker fly again on 'Tiny's' wings?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A week after a financial crash involving debts of (STR)270 million ($502 million), Sir Freddie Laker, king of the airline price cutters, is making a strong bid to fly again.

Sir Freddie's falling fortunes have been put into reverse by personal determination and the promise of a huge injection of capital from another financial operator with a reputation for daring, Roland ''Tiny'' Rowland, head of the giant Lonrho Corporation.

Laker and Rowland have begun trying to persuade Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to transfer operating licenses from the defunct Laker Airways to what Sir Freddie is already describing with typical public relations flair as a ''people's airline.''

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Rowland's offer to Sir Freddie came as the official receiver, appointed to manage the collapsed company, successfully sold off Laker's two air holiday companies. But it did not come soon enough to avert the dismissal of 1,700 employees of Laker Airways.

Amid the excitement of what one commentator described as an ''Icarus to Lazarus'' demonstration of Sir Freddie's survivability, there were doubts whether the CAA would approve a transfer of licenses to the proposed ''people's airline.''

Some members of Parliament accused Sir Freddie of massive overtrading with Laker Airways regardless of business risks. His defenders counterattacked, saying Laker had been forced out of business largely because of questionable tactics by bigger, state-subsidized transatlantic air operators.

Public confidence in Laker proved to be a life raft when it was announced that his business had collapsed. Immediately private citizens all over Britain began sending money. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were pledged until Laker stated that people should stop giving him money.

Sir Freddie is widely regarded as the man who put international flying within the range of working class people. Not only did his Skytrain service offer a cheap flight to the United States, it also encouraged other airlines to drop fares.

Laker and Rowland hope to be able to buy back most of Laker Airway's planes out of receivership and resume transatlantic operations. But Laker Airways' old competitors are already beginning to argue that the firm's financial crash means Sir Freddie's new application should be looked at long and hard by the CAA.

The two business tycoons are hoping that the delay won't be too long. They want a favorable decision out of the authority by April.

Lonrho has extensive business holdings in Africa. Rowland last year purchased the Sunday Observer, one of Britain's most prestigious newspapers.

To smoothe the way for Laker's recovery, Rowland pledged to reimburse any Laker ticket holder who had been prevented from flying as a result of the financial collapse of the airline. The cost of this would be up to (STR)1 million.

A crucial factor in whether CAA will let the ''people's airline'' take over from Laker Airways will be the financial structure of the proposed new company. When Laker's company crashed, the debt to equity ratio was 7 to 1 -- far too high for safe business operations in a recession, according to most financial analysts.

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