Airline CEOs and reciprocal first class travel

I’m currently reading the 1987 book Struggle For Take Off: The British Airways Story by Duncan Campbell-Smith, and the start of chapter 4 contained an interesting anecdote about Sir Freddie Laker, founder of Laker Airways.

Freddie was visiting his estranged wife and their son, Little Freddie, in Miami at the beginning of March 1982. As he had done countless times before, he asked the British Airways office manager in Miami for a first-class ticket home. Since his last trip, however, the world has changed for Freddie.

Top men in most of the world’s airlines have reciprocal arrangements to pick up free first-class air tickets as and where they want them. When Laker Airways has passed into receivership, on 5 February 1982, Freddie had lost this entitlement – in theory, anyway. But by March Freddie was already proclaiming plans for a new ‘People’s Airline’. And this, as he told BA’s Miami office, should have kept him on the free travel list.

There followed a frantic exchange between the office manager and BA’s brass at Heathrow. It seemed there were going to be quite a few economy-class passengers on the same flight who had each paid a normal fare and then been asked for an additional £130 by BA. The normal fare, unhappily, had been paid to Laker Airways: they were among the 6,000 tour and charter passengers stranded abroad by the collapse.

BA was caused some embarrassment by the whole incident. In the end, Freddie got his free first-class ticket; but it was quickly made clear that it would be his last from BA.

Free first-class tickets anywhere in the world sounds like quite a deal, and the above story is corroborated by this article from the March 6, 1982 edition of the New York Times.

For Sir Freddie Laker, Still Another Blow
By Albin Krebs and Robert McG. Thomas

First Sir Freddie Laker lost his Laker Airways to bankruptcy and receivership, and now comes what may be the unkindest cut of all: He’s also lost his right to ride free on other airlines.

It has been the policy of British Airways, and other airlines, to accord heads of competing airlines the privilege of riding free, but a spokesman for B.A. said in London yesterday that since the Laker line was no longer in operation, it was withdrawing the courtesy in Sir Freddie’s case.

Spokesmen for other airlines said they would follow suit. “There is no reason to suppose he will ask for, or will be granted, this facility again,” said the British Airways spokesman. On Tuesday, Sir Freddie rode British Airways on a free $1,935 first-class ticket from Florida to London. Twenty other Britons stranded in Miami when his airline collapsed last month were also on board the flight, in tourist class. They had paid $238 each for their tickets.

Since his 4-year-old son, Freddie Jr., lives in Key Biscayne with Sir Freddie’s estranged wife, Sir Freddie has flown frequently to Florida.

Fast forward to today, and the I wonder if the gentleman’s agreement still exists between airline CEOs – I find it hard to imagine Michael O’Leary, controversial CEO of super low cost airline Ryanair, being given a free ticket for the super plush ‘The Residence’ first-class suite with Etihad Airways!

Back in the real world

Reciprocal travel privileges for airline staff still exist today, and it isn’t just for the men in suits – officially known as interline travel, it is governed by the Zonal Employee Discount (ZED) multilateral agreement, which covers around 180 airlines around the world.

Further reading

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