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Crash could cripple Lauda-Air

VIENNA -- The deaths of 223 passengers aboard Lauda-Air's flight NG004 comes as a severe blow to the 11-year-old private airline founded and half-owned by former race car driver Niki Lauda.

Lauda only had two Boeing 767-300ERs -- the ER stands for extended range -- and the loss of one of them Sunday in Thailand destroyed half of the company's long-haul capacity. But Lauda dismissed questions about the future of his airline at a news conference Monday, saying his primary concern was the 'human tragedy.'

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Starting with just two 44-seat planes, himself in the pilot seat and four years of flying experience, Lauda barely kept the airline alive through its first six years, flying chartered flights mostly to Greece and other vacation destinations. A recession forced him to lease the planes to Egypt and Spain in the early 1980s.

The company posted heavy losses until 1985 when Lauda plucked away Austrian Airlines' biggest tour operator, Greek businessman Basile Vavaressos, and made him 49 percent owner of the firm. That same year Lauda also won the rights for scheduled flights from Vienna to Bangkok and Sydney and the company's fortunes edged into the black on revenues of $14 million.

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Lauda-Air's big break came last year when it won worldwide flight concessions, which meant that it could fly to any country that gives it landing rights.

'It's been going very well since then,' said Elisabeth Erdelitsch, a spokeswoman for Lauda-Air. 'We've had increasing frequency of flights, increasing passenger numbers and more routes.'

The concession of the long-haul route came at the expense of state- owned Austrian Airlines, which bitterly fought the younger, smaller airline.

Lauda now has a four-plane Boeing fleet: One 767-300ER, two 737-300s and a Boeing 737-400. The fleet flew to London, Bangkok, Sydney and Phuket in Thailand.

On June 2 Lauda was to inaugurate another long-haul route to Asia with a once weekly flight to Seoul, Korea, and Taipei, Taiwan, but the future of that route is now unclear.

Lauda is a three-time Formula One world champion race car driver who won racing's top honor seven years after starting on the Formula Three circuit.

A crash in 1976 burned and disfigured his face but Lauda was back behind the wheel in less than five weeks and won two of his titles after the accident.

Recalling that accident, the Vienna native said, 'I think when you are that close (to death), you learn not to throw your life away to stupidity.'

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Since leaving the race track, Lauda has spent much of his time in the air and he works a regular schedule as one of Lauda's 64 pilots, Erdelitsch said.

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