Normal Person Flies Concorde
Sunday, January 27, 2002
Concorde to London? It was an extravagance for someone who has prided herself on getting the lowest possible fares to any destination -- but especially to London, where a nearly seven-year posting made the city a second home.
Still, the offer was so enticing: Fly British Airways' supersonic Concorde to London for $2,002 to celebrate the new year. The promotion, valid only on Dec. 30 or 31, included a return home the following week in British Airways' Club World business class. It would have been somehow unseemly, certainly a letdown, to go to London "on Concorde" and then come back in coach, my normal -- though certainly not preferred -- class of travel. "Riff-raff" is what Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, originally wanted to name his economy section, but he was dissuaded from doing so. And "riff-raff" is what coach would have seemed like after a Concorde trip.
Compared with my usual round-trip fares of about $350, this was a lot of money. How to square a $2,002 round trip (plus $92 in taxes and $92 more to get to New York) for the Concorde? By deciding to treat myself, by spending hard-earned money on something out of character that might provide a special experience.
These offers don't come along often. In fact, British Airways spokesman John Lampl said the airline has never offered a price reduction like this for its flagship aircraft. The typical one-way fare for Concorde is about $6,350, although a "discount $4,999 round-trip fare" was offered after Concorde returned to the air on Nov. 8, 2001. That day, the aircraft ended a suspension of services following the fiery crash of an Air France Concorde on takeoff from Paris in July 2000.
An estimated $25 million of technical modifications were carried out on the aircraft during its 15-month grounding to make sure such an accident won't happen again. This included lining fuel tanks in the aircraft's wings with a Kevlar-rubber compound similar to that used in military helicopters and Formula 1 racing cars; adding protection to the wiring in the areas around the landing gear; and equipping the aircraft with new custom-built Michelin tires.
If any of the passengers were at all worried about the aircraft's technical integrity, they gave no sign of it.
The Concorde is what it's cracked up to be: elegant, stress-free and the quickest imaginable way across the Atlantic. There are some who have pooh-poohed the aircraft because it is small with smaller-than-usual seats. The aircraft is smaller than the normal transatlantic plane -- 25 rows of two-by-two seating in a 9 1/2-foot-wide fuselage. But the seats are comfortable, and you're only aloft an average of 3 hours 20 minutes. That's less than half the usual flying time of a subsonic aircraft on the same route.
The ambiance surrounding Concorde (the supersonic aircraft is in such a class by itself that they never say "the Concorde") bespeaks understated elegance. In New York -- the only U.S. city with Concorde service -- British Airways has a separate check-in, security screening area and lounge for Concorde passengers. In the lounge -- a glass pier with the aircraft parked in your sights -- you can sit in upscale lounge chairs by Charles Eames or Le Corbusier, or at tables where you can eat a full meal before you board. There is also a business center . . . no, not today, thank you.
Even the Concorde's flight numbers seek to impart the special nature of the experience -- BA 001 from London to New York, BA 002 from New York to London.
Travelers board the aircraft from the lounge through a sliding glass door and a short walk along a glass-enclosed corridor. Coats have been collected so travelers don't even have to carry them on board. No rushing, no crowding. (One only sees those lined up to check in for subsonic flights through a glass partition heading to the security area.)
On board, the luxury continues. While it was grounded, British Airways spent $20 million on a redesign of the interiors, aided by British design guru Terence Conran, who earlier had put his stamp on the Concorde lounge. The comfy airplane seats, in soft blue leather, pivot with a cradle mechanism and have adjustable headrests and footrests. Sennheiser noise-canceling headsets allow passengers to listen to audio programs and block out aircraft noise.
The plane is divided into two cabins, with 40 seats in the front cabin and 60 in the rear, the two separated by a narrow aisle lined with coat closets, lavatories and galleys. Passengers are quickly seated and offered a glass of Dom Perignon. The champagne flows freely throughout the flight.