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.

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., on Friday. 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 Laker was one of Britain's greatest entrepreneurs.

"He was a larger-than-life figure ... 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 Laker was "a true pioneer who inspired all of us in aviation to hang on in there."

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 U.S. and Britain - including British Airways, Pan Am and TWA - colluded to oppose the new service. When Skytrain's parent Laker Airways ran into debt problems, Pan Am's decision to cut its economy fares by 66 percent effectively finished off the budget airline.

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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