Airline founder, Formula One champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

Niki Lauda in 2016. Photo: © MacKrys

Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda, three-times Formula One world champion and founder of several airlines, has passed away at the age of 70 on Monday, following a period of health issues, his family announced Tuesday morning.

Niki Lauda was born in Vienna, Austria on February 22nd, 1949. After entering Formula One in 1971, he became world champion of the motor sport series in the years 1975, 1977 and 1984, until his retirement from racing in 1985.

In 1979, the racing star and commercial aircraft pilot founded his first airline, Lauda Air, as a charter and leisure carrier. After being a charter airline for some years, Lauda Air commenced scheduled operations in 1985, using two BAC 1-11. The carrier later added Boeing 737, 767-300ER, 777-200ER, Bombardier CRJ-100 and Airbus A320 to its fleet. Niki Lauda was sometimes seen personally operating as a pilot on flights of the airline.

A Lauda Air Boeing 767. Photo: © Pedro Aragão

Lauda left his first airline in 2000, and in 2003, Lauda Air became part of the Austrian Airlines Group.

Also in 2003, the German leisure carrier Aero Lloyd filed for insolvency and ceased operations. Niki Lauda used the opportunity to acquire its subsidiary Aero Lloyd Austria, and with it, created a new airline, called Niki Luftfahrt (branded as ‘flyniki’ and later ‘NIKI’). Niki operated as a full-service carrier to and from airports in Austria. In 2004, the airline started a partnership with Air Berlin, when the German Oneworld alliance member acquired 24% of Niki Luftfahrt. Air Berlin took over the remaining shares of its Austrian partner in November 2011 and later restructured the airline to operate on Air Berlin’s leisure routes. At the time of the takeover, Niki was operating a fleet of 21 aircraft, consisting of ten Airbus A320, four A321 and seven Embraer E190 jets.

NIKI Embraer E190. Photo: © Aero Icarus

In 2016, Niki Lauda took over Amira Air and turned it into business-charter airline LaudaMotion Executive, which, to this day, operates a number of business jets and is a 100% subsidiary of Lauda’s NL Holdings GmbH.

After Air Berlin, Germany’s second largest airline, ceased operations on October 27th, 2017, Niki was carrying out flight operations independently, while negotiating with Lufthansa Group, which had intended to take over the leisure carrier. Due to antitrust regulations, Lufthansa dropped its bid for the airline, and Niki ceased operations on December 13th, 2017.

Following the shutdown of operations, several parties, including British Airways and Iberia owner IAG (International Airlines Group), as well as original founder Niki Lauda himself, placed takeover bids for what was left of the Austrian leisure airline.

Regulators ultimately chose Niki Lauda and his already existing charter airline ‘LaudaMotion’ as the new owner for the carrier’s assets, which included airport slots, employees and aircraft leased from Lufthansa Group, winning against IAG in the bidding competition. As a result, a new Austria-based low-cost leisure airline was established under the name ‘Laudamotion’ (branded as ‘Lauda’). The carrier started scheduled operations on March 25th, 2018, with aircraft based at several airports across Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and was cooperating with Thomas Cook-owned Condor for ticket sales. On March 20th, 2018, even before launching flight operations, Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair announced to take over 24.9% of the airline, causing Condor to drop its cooperation. In September of the same year, Ryanair increased its ownership of Laudamotion to 75%, and in late-December took full control of Niki Lauda’s latest carrier.

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