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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin THE CONCORDE REVISITED

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

“I think I shall never see,
A thing as lovely as an SST.”

November 03, 1997 -- After dispensing with all due apologies to Joyce Kilmer, let me turn to the Concorde, which remains, ultimately, a magnificent machine threatened by obsolescence. Fortunately, there’s good news, too. Technology keeps propelling the inevitable further and further into the next millennium, which is the most any of us can hope for.

When I first wrote about Concorde in 1982, the sleek, needle-nosed creature was already regarded as a candidate for the Smithsonian, with forecasts of permanent grounding due to old age by 2000. It was a sad thought then, as it is now, that no other supersonic aircraft were on the drawing boards or ready to take flight in the glamorous aftermath of a generation of Concordes. (Not that this couldn’t happen…but don’t hold your breath.)

In the meantime, I’ve been briefed about a reprieve of sorts for passengers and resolute SST-watchers like me. It now looks as if Concorde’s life span will be extended for another 20 years, based on a clean bill of health from an Anglo-French study, as well as careful and meticulous maintenance checks. This encouraging intelligence comes from a recent conversation I had with Campbell Pritchett, manager of safety U.S.A. for British Airways, who served as a flight operations manager during Concorde’s introduction from 1974 to 1980.

A Dozen Remain. The British and French built 20 Concordes, 14 of them for actual passenger duty. Two were prototypes (I went to Bristol and Toulouse in the early 1970s to take a look.), two were pre-production models and several were designated for test purposes. A dozen remain on duty, seven for British Airways (BA) and five for Air France. The former flies them between New York/JFK and London, and London to Barbados seasonally; the latter connects New York/JFK and Paris.

The SSTs also are chartered on occasion. In 1989, my colleague Eric Friedheim and I joined William F. Buckley on the first two legs of an ambitious around-the-world tour that Buckley hosted. We flew from JFK to Acapulco, then on to Oakland, where we said goodbye to the group, which headed across the Pacific.

I recall that on the Auckland–Sydney leg of the flight the Concorde lost a piece of its tail. No problem: a new rail was ferried to Sydney, and the tour went on its merry and expensive way. (I believe each passenger paid around $40,000 for the 24-day package, which was commissionable.) Pritchett also offered several other insights into the changing dynamics affecting Concorde and the outlook for commercial SSTs in the future. In 1976 — the year service began — each of the supersonic craft cost $55 million, a figure that has escalated to an estimated $300 million per plane in today’s market. (When Concorde was introduced more than 20 years ago, the one-way fare was $760; today it’s $5,045.)

When Concorde made its debut at JFK, hysterical protesters focused on noise pollution, safety and environmental concerns. (I was denounced on several New York call-in radio shows as a tool of the airlines for defending the SST, which, right or wrong, I viewed as progress.) Today, all is quiet on that front; the battle is just a hazy memory. Pritchett says noise-abatement techniques and other advances have defused the issue.

Flying on the Concorde is always a special occasion: You get there in a hurry, and when you take the morning flight east you avoid both the overnight blues and jet lag. Our most recent Concorde flight was to London, before continuing on to Glasgow for the ASTA Congress. The Concorde is a felicitous way to kick off any journey where London or Paris is a logical gateway.

SST Experience. The Concorde lounge in the BA terminal at JFK provides an introduction to the refreshing and relaxed attitude that pervades the SST experience from airport to airport. There’s that Brit crispness conveyed by the cheery, clipped accents (which helped win World War II). The lounge is pleasant and understated; the expansive breakfast spread includes coffee, brewed tea, croissants and juices. It was early in the morning for me, so I think I had berries and marble cake with my tea. I eavesdropped on a quartet of cool fashion industry types talking deals (dizzying dollars). It seemed clear that they considered the cost of a Concorde ride a write-off.

A few minutes after we were airborne, the captain turned on the juice and we sped into Mach 2, or about 1,300 mph, twice the speed of sound. The transition from subsonic to supersonic was, as always, seamless and sensation-free. Most of the 100 seats were filled; I like to describe the comfortable 2x2 configuration as luxury coach. The cushioned headsets pipe in super sound; Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida never sounded better — well, almost. At 55,000 feel you could say you’ve got very high fidelity.

I’m big on brunch on weekends, but once I expanded my horizon to brunch on Wednesday morning, I really got into it. After a fresh fruit medley, I had a savory mixed grill and my wife had marinated Portobello mushrooms stuffed with Mediterranean vegetables. This was followed by cheeses and fresh fruit; I believe I tried the Stilton, brie and double Gloucester. Chocolates followed coffee and tea. Should the entrees overwhelm the passenger, there are a variety of freshly made sandwiches.

Drinking at Speed. The generous selection of spirits runs the gamut from low-alcohol lager to Glenfiddich Excellence, an 18-year-old single-malt whiskey. I also tasted a La Concha Amontillado sherry. The wines all came with pedigrees from the Concorde cellar. I counted nearly a dozen champagnes, including Dom Perignon.

Concorde load factors currently average in the 70s and 80s eastbound, depending on the time of year; westbound, it’s mid-80s to the low 90s, impressive results when you consider the tariff. Travel agents book 90 percent of all passengers.

Supersonic flight is still one of the world’s great travel experiences. In 1989, I wrote, “The Concorde is an aging miracle…but the passage of time has not diminished the allure of this supersonic jet, with its now-familiar and piercingly slender profile.”

Almost a decade later, nothing has changed.

This column originally appeared in Travel Agent magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2006 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.