From race tracks to the skies, Niki Lauda dies at 70
The founder and chairman of Laudamotion, Niki Lauda passed away at the age of 70. After a brilliant career as a Formula 1 driver, during which he was crowned three times world champion, the Austrian made himself a name in the world of aviation.
Affected by a car crash in 1976 that marked his face for life, Andreas Nikolaus Lauda, more commonly known as Niki Lauda, took a brief break from the world of racing and went on to focus on his other passion: aviation.
In 1978, he founded Lauda Air as a charter airline. However, pressure from Austrian Airlines, taxes, and fuel prices, was initially too strong and the operations went on hold at the beginning of 1983. Lauda had to wait for 1985, and a third and ultimate world champion title before his airline could definitely take to the skies.
But again, a tragedy came to mark his new career as a businessman. On May 26, 1991, a Boeing 767, registered OE-LAV, was on its way from Bangkok to Vienna when the thrust reverser of the left engine deployed suddenly. The plane entered an uncontrolled descent and disintegrated at 1,200 meters altitude. None of the 223 passengers and crew members survived. “If I make a mistake and die in a race car, tough luck, that’s my fault,” Lauda said, “but the people who fly with me have the right to expect safe travel”.
On November 21, 2000, Niki Lauda resigned and Lauda Air became a subsidiary of Austrian Airlines. But he did not stay out of the aviation business for long. In 2004, Lauda acquired what was known as Aero Lloyd Austria and rebranded it as Niki, a low-cost carrier. After years of collaboration with Niki, the German carrier Air Berlin announced in July 2010 that it would increase its stake in the company to 49.9%, before eventually acquiring it in 2011, with Lauda becoming a non-executive director. During that time period, the brand Lauda Air disappeared from Austrian Airlines‘ operations.
In 2018, however, Niki Lauda, already known as the Phoenix, made a remarkable comeback and acquired Amira Air. In the wake of Air Berlin‘s collapse, he went on to acquire back his former LCC, Niki. Both airlines would be known as Laudamotion.
On March 20, 2018, Ryanair announced its decision to acquire a major stake in Laudamotion for €50 million, after IAG and Lufthansa were turned down. While Ryanair provided financial and management support to Laudamotion, Niki Lauda remained the Chairman of the Board. In January 2019, Ryanair increased its stake to a full 100%.
Laudamotion has the particularity to be the only Airbus fleet maintained by Ryanair. “The Laudamotion will support a fleet of Airbus aircraft which is something we have hoped to develop within the Ryanair Group for some years,” said Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary at the time. The three-time Formula 1 champion eventually retired in March 2019, and the airline was rebranded Lauda.
Niki Lauda, who underwent a lung transplant in August 2018, passed away in a hospital of Zurich, Switzerland, on May 20, 2019.
Michael O’Leary said in a statement: “Niki Lauda will remain in our heart and our memory as a visionary leader, a legend of Formula 1 and an aviation pioneer. Niki was an exceptional entrepreneur whose courage and fighting spirit inspired millions. While we are devastated at his untimely passing, his spirit and vision will live on in Laudamotion, which proudly carries his name and his entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a sad day for Formula 1 and Laudamotion. Niki’s spirit and his legacy will live on forever. Niki and his family are all in our thoughts and prayers today. May he rest in peace.”
Niki Lauda, 2009 (Credit: André Zehetbauer)
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