Lord John Leonard King, the former chairman of British Airways who turned the once ailing state-owned flag carrier into a profitable publicly held airline, died Tuesday, the company said. He was 87.
"He transformed the airline from a position of state-owned weakness to one of financial strength and global renown as a pioneer privatized carrier," British Airways Chairman Martin Broughton said. The company did not release the cause of death.
King was named head of the airline in 1981 by then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and was in charge when the government raised $1.6 billion by selling the airline's shares to the public in 1987. By the time King stepped down as chairman in 1993, after an antitrust dispute with Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways, British Airways was one of the world's most profitable airlines.
Born in Essex, England, in 1918, King was the son of a village postmaster, Albert, and his wife, Kathleen. After joining a car sales business in Surrey, he married Lorna Sykes, daughter of the company's owner. King successfully ran a number of motor and ball-bearing businesses. In 1972, he became chairman of Babcock & Wilcox.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, King served on several state agencies, including the watchdog Review Board for Government Contracts. In 1979, he was knighted by Prime Minister James Callaghan, head of the Labor Party. Four years later, Thatcher, a Conservative, made the industrialist a life peer.
King's government ties helped him turn around British Airways, and he sought to protect the airline's exclusive right to fly across the Atlantic from Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, boosting passenger numbers.
When Branson also gained approval for Virgin Atlantic to fly the lucrative routes, relations between the two men soured. On one occasion, Branson delivered a beautifully wrapped package to the British Airways chairman containing only indigestion tablets.
After a number of legal actions sparked by Branson's allegations that British Airways was using "dirty tricks" to tarnish his new airline, British Airways was forced to apologize and pay damages. King stepped down as chairman.
"It's unfortunate they subsequently became involved in a battle with Virgin," said Dan Solon, an analyst at a London-based consulting company.
"It tended to leave a bad taste and will be one of the things [King is] remembered for. His real contribution was far more affirmative and effective."
A lover of fox hunting and a member of White's, a London gentleman's club, King owned estates in Scotland and in Leicestershire, England.
He is survived by his second wife, the former Isabel Monckton, a relative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.