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Wed, Dec 01, 2004

Niki Lauda Still in the Cockpit

Legendary motor-racing champion growing second airline

By ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin O'Brien

If you're "of a certain age," and a Formula One motor racing fan, you will remember Niki Lauda as one of the all-time greats: a fearless campaigner, a three-time World Champion (1975, 1977, and 1984), and an accident-prone driver, whose career nearly ended for good in a fiery 1976 crash that left him disfigured, but alive (Lauda, a Catholic, received the last rites -- it was that close). If you're a younger fan, you may only remember him as the ill-fated captain of the ill-fated Jaguar team in 2002. But if you're in aviation, you may also remember him as the founder of an Austrian international carrier (well, given the size of Austria, there's not much potential in being a domestic carrier, is there?) called Lauda Air.

Lauda was made to walk the plank from his own namesake airline in 1999, as bitter Austrian competitor took control and the new management ultimately bought him out. Only a national hero of Lauda's stature could have launched a competitor of flag carrier Austrian Airlines in the political climate in Austria in 1980. (If you don't understand the "stature," let me explain: Formula One in Europe is like NASCAR in North Carolina). And now the airline that once did things "the Lauda way" has been subsumed into Austrian, and the name ("I was the idiot who signed away the name," he says) now is used for Austrian's cattle-call charters. But we haven't seen the end of Captain Andreas Nikolas Lauda yet. While the anglosphere wasn't looking, he founded a new budget airline "Niki," flying from his homeland of Austria to other European destinations, and it finally got our attention when he flew it into London last month.

The British Guardian newspaper's Andrew Clark had an interesting -- fascinating -- interview with Lauda earlier this month. Clark asks intelligent questions about Lauda's disparate careers as pilot (he's ATP-rated with 13,000-plus hours) and racing driver. The occasion of the interview was Niki, the airline's, inaugural flight, from Vienna to London (Stansted) flight with -- who else? -- Niki. the pilot, in the left seat. He'll fly at least twice a week on one of the line's Airbuses.

The whole line is permeated with his personality. His flight and cabin crews have space age uniforms right out of Doctor Who, but no union cards in their pockets. "I'd rather keep them out, purely and simply," he says, taking pride in his non-union history. It's one facet of keeping costs low, something necessary when you're advertising fares of Euro 29.

He takes a different attitude, he told Clark, while flying than he did in motor racing days. An airliner is no place for his racetrack derring-do: "Flying a plane is the opposite: you respect rules and fly to the rules. You can't possibly compare the two." Read the entire Clark interview for a fascinating look at many aspects of launching an airline.

Lauda retains scars from his Grand Prix days; he never had his burned ears surgically reconstructed. And he retains his sense of humor, which was legendary on the circuit. Recently spotted at the Nurburgring turn where he crashed and burned, he responded to a question about what he was doing: "I'm looking for my ear!" You get the impression that he can get by without the ear, but really has a hard time living without an airline.

FMI: http://flyniki.com

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