This week, I feel compelled to mention the recent passing of Sir Freddie Laker, a British entrepreneur who was one of the true pioneers of budget travel.
In 1977, Laker introduced $100 one-way airfares between New York and London, shocking the major carriers on the route (British Airways, Pan Am and TWA) and starting an international fare war. He called the service Skytrain, packing seats as close as humanly possible on his DC-10s and eliminating every frill in order to cut overhead to the bone. If you wanted to eat on the 7-hour flight, you could buy a sandwich from the cart when it came down the aisle.
There were no advance reservations or advance seat assignments, and in fact there was no reservations system at all. Tickets were purchased in person at the ticket office in New York or London, on the day of departure. In New York in the summertime, the line started forming before dawn each day, and tickets were sold on a first-come, first-served basis until they were gone. Those with tickets had a few hours to make it out to JFK for the flight. Those without were advised to try again the next day.
Skytrain flourished at first but expanded too rapidly into a global recession and collapsed in 1982, charging its larger competitors with predatory practices. In those 5 years, hundreds of thousands of people crossed the Atlantic who could not have afforded it otherwise.
In August of 1978, I was one of those people, a college student on my first trip out of the country. After a short visit to London and Paris, I prepared to return home and found myself in one of the most notorious traffic jams in aviation history.
By that time, Laker's reputation among college students was golden, and many who had spent the summer backpacking in Europe began to congregate in London for a Skytrain flight back to the U.S. Each day there was a surplus of people waiting to buy tickets, most very low on cash and few with any other options for getting back to the states.
After tickets for that day's flight were distributed, the surplus of would-be passengers carried over to the next day, and the line grew longer and longer. Eventually the line at the ticket office grew so long that the back half had to be relocated to the banks of the Thames River, where a "Tent City" of mostly college students queued up and an elaborate system for keeping track of one's place in line developed.
By the time I arrived in Tent City to sign up for a place in line, there were more than 1,000 "residents," enough to fill 3-4 days of flights. I was assigned to a tent with a number of others and had to take a shift each day watching out for our collective interests and belongings, but was otherwise free to roam. Each day about 350 people from the front of the line purchased tickets and flew out, lists were revised in an orderly fashion, and then we'd scatter to make the most of another unscheduled day in London.
The British Press dubbed us "terminal children" and referred to Tent City as Lakerville. A report by Peter Jennings put our makeshift community on the ABC Evening News, and I could almost hear my parents at home saying, "Ah, so that's where he is!"
It was a bit tense at the time not knowing exactly when I would be leaving -- and whether I might starve in the meantime -- but I look back on that now as just another amazing aspect of my first international vacation. All courtesy of a man who challenged the status quo and expanded access to international air travel far beyond the well-to-do.
So thank you, Sir Freddie, from all of us who could not have traveled without you. Godspeed on your new voyage.
Vacations To Go