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
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.