The Independent Archive: 7 April 1988 - The laws of upward mobility, BA style

Alexander Chancellor has been flying Concorde. He reveals the secret of how to get bumped up by British Airways
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The Independent Culture
WASHINGTON - I have just been to London and back. I flew there by Concorde and returned in the First Class compartment of a British Airways jumbo jet. I expect practically all readers of The Independent cross the Atlantic regularly by Concorde, but in case there is still among you some unfortunate who does not have the disposable income to pay $3,210 (pounds 1,700) to go to America and another $3,210 to go home again, let me comfort the miserable creature by saying that you have not been missing all that much.

Life for the Concorde traveller is actually more glamorous on the ground than in the air, where conditions are a little too cramped to convey a sense of enormous luxury. At Kennedy Airport, New York, there is an agreeable waiting room containing supplies of fresh orange juice, coffee and copies of The Independent. It would be pleasant to linger there, but instead one is obliged to clamber into this long thin tube and be hurtled across the ocean at twice the speed of sound, while the stewards and stewardesses do their best under these trying circumstances to make one feel pampered. It is fortunate for them that the flight lasts only a little over three hours, for they manage to keep smiling without a break for the entire journey. The strain must be terrible.

The main point of Concorde is, of course, that it travels so fast and gets you to your destination with breathtaking speed. But you also meet a very superior kind of passenger. My neighbour was a Canadian with an Oxford accent living in Connecticut and on his way to clinch a deal in Peking. He was stopping in London to make a speech which had been written for him by somebody else. He was chairman of two different companies with different addresses and presented me with two visiting cards to prove it. In Peking he was to sign an agreement chartering a Chinese ship with a Chinese crew to carry vast quantities of rock from a quarry on the west coast of Scotland to the Port of London. The rock was needed for building the Channel Tunnel. You don't meet people like that in the back end of a Boeing 747.

To travel First Class from London to Washington costs about $2,500, considerably less than by Concorde, but it has certain advantages. You have a much larger and more comfortable seat and are given an extremely good lunch. My neighbour on this flight was probably even grander than Concorde man. He was more expensively dressed, wore more jewellery and sent back the toast because it was soggy. His reading consisted of the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and a book called Stick and Rudder about how to fly aeroplanes. But I can tell you no more about him because we didn't exchange a word during our entire seven and a half hours in the air. (Not quite true. Noting his interest in horticulture, I asked him if he could identify the leaf on the smoked salmon. "Dandelion," he replied.)

At this point, you may be wondering what I have been doing travelling in such an extravagant way. The fact is that I had no choice in the matter. I had two business class tickets with reserved seats. But the New York- London flight was cancelled, so British Airways put me on Concorde; and on the London-Washington flight, the Club Class compartment was overbooked, so they put me in First. It seems that British Airways encourages upward mobility of this sort. When I was bumped up from Club to First, I met a First Class passenger in our VIP lounge who had been bumped up to Concorde to make room for me. It is fortunate that Concorde is hardly ever fully booked, for where can one go from there except down?

The only problem with the British Airways upward mobility system is that it appears to operate according to modern Thatcherite principles. It rewards the "haves" but not the "have-nots". If I had not been holding a Club Class ticket, but had been a simple Economy Class passenger, I would never have been allowed to fly on Concorde, even though my flight had been cancelled. Instead, I would most likely have been stranded in New York for many hours waiting for another ordinary flight to leave for London.

So, if you want to rub shoulders with Omar Sharif (as I did at London Airport on Tuesday), if you want to send back your toast to a smiling and uncomplaining steward, spend the extra, buy a business class ticket and anything might happen.

`Out of the West' from the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Thursday 7 April 1988