Why Concorde mattered

We might have had to pay through the nose to get anywhere near the nose, but we all wanted to do it
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The Independent Online

When did you last look at your watch and think "I need to go to New York, but it will take too long. I really don't have three extra hours to spare. I will have to take Concorde"? Now, it may come as a shock, but there really are such people in the world. People for whom the extra 225 minutes make the difference between the deal and the dole. And it was for those people that Concorde was truly designed.

I have a horrible truth to reveal: during its quarter of a century in service, Concorde was never intended for the likes of you and me. Oh sure, many of us blagged our way on somehow. Possibly we were upgraded at times of recession from British Airways' business class to Concorde. We then pompously acted like we "belonged there": that this was our natural habitat.

We fooled no one. The cheesy grin when getting on board, our furtive looks to make sure no one noticed as we nicked the napkin rings and our delight at saying in a very loud voice on the mobile from the lounge, "Oh yes, I'm just getting on Concorde." No one, least of all the staff who had seen it all before, was deceived. We were tolerated - mainly by those people for whom Concorde was part of their regular commute. They truly needed to be "there before they'd left".

It didn't matter that the one-way ticket cost more than most of us make in a month; these regular Concorders would have flown first class anyway; a few hundred more qualified them for "the Rocket", as the supersonic jet is known by BA staff and people who like to think they are insiders. Nor did their companies care about the cost. After all, if you're crossing the Atlantic to sign a deal for $500m, what difference does another few thousand in airfares make? It's barely the rounding error on the bankers fees.

For the top CEOs (assuming their board of directors has confiscated the Gulfstream V), Concorde was their equivalent of the number 19 bus. Hold very tight please.

And make no mistake. CEOs, lawyers, accountants and reinsurance executives were the backbone of Concorde's business. BA's CEO Rod Eddington is quite blunt about why he decided it had to go. "The number of key corporate customers travelling Concorde is something like 80 per cent less than it was a couple of years ago." In other words only about 20 of the 100 seats were being filled. It was all to do with cost cutting. "Major corporate organisations have had to tighten their belts," says Mr Eddington, "and that means tighten their travel budgets."

I can see what he means. It would be pretty hard for the CEO to sell: "Off you go Smithers. Ryanair from Stansted. Think of it as character building. Afraid I can't join you. Speedbird 001 awaits."

So while celebs such as Sting and Sir Paul McCartney might have got the publicity, it was big business that paid the bills. Sir David Frost has travelled on Concorde on average 20 times a year for the past 20 years and freely admits that he could have bought a small island with the amount he's spent. For him it was all about saving time. "It was a fantastic plus to my commuting life."

Why, then, did Concorde matter to the rest of us who don't commute the Atlantic? It's simple. We aspired to travel on Concorde. It was a dream that could actually come true: arriving in New York before you had left London.

The BBC's recent poll of what we all want to do before we die had flying on Concorde in the top five. And yes, provided we mortgaged the house, sold the car and forgot to pay the milkman, we could do it. Maybe only once. But we could. And unlike restaurants that won't take our reservations because we don't have the right name, all BA wanted was our money. Hand it over and, yup, we were on board. Maybe not in the first five rows (reserved for serious Concorde passengers), but we were part of the club.

Flying Concorde was a real-life aspiration. And if you doubt that, go to the end of the south runway at Heathrow when Concorde takes off. And see the sheer number of ordinary people, not just planespotters, waiting to watch it depart.

So what went wrong? As the cost of keeping Concorde airborne rose, demand for the supersonic jet collapsed. Finance directors would not sanction the extra fare (around double the price of BA's ever-improving Club product) through the difficult early years of the 21st century.

As a result, we are taking a step backwards. This is the first time in the history of aviation when a development has not been built upon. Commercial supersonic travel will be no longer. Technology has gone into reverse.

So what of the future? For them who could pay and us who watched? A new egalitarianism is about to break out. CEOs will still have to travel, and (assuming the board hasn't given them their toy Gulfstream back) they will now have to be on the "same plane as us". They have no choice. It's that or stay at home.

And for the rest of us? Well, stop shedding tears. We now have a new aspiration - and, frankly, one that is much easier to achieve than getting on Concorde. We only have to move forward on the plane. The physical and metaphorical gap from 48K to 1A on a Boeing 747 is just a hop and a skip. True, it's not the same as being with the toffs on the Rocket. But then, console yourself. They're not there, either.

Richard Quest is a business anchor for CNN International and presents the monthly show 'CNN Business Traveller'


Struggling to fill those extra three hours 45 minutes on the subsonic flight to New York? Try our Concorde quiz:

1 What was the first British Airways Concorde destination?

(a) New York (b) Bahrain (c) Washington

2 And the first stop for Air France?

(a) Montreal (b) Dakar (c) Martinique

3 Where did Air France's first Concorde service continue to?

(a) Vancouver (b) Rio (c) Guadeloupe

4 Which Asian airline "flew" Concorde, or at least paid British Airways to do so?

(a) Cathay Pacific (b) Singapore Airlines (c) Japan Airlines

5 On which route?

(a) Bombay-Hong Kong (b) Bahrain-Singapore (c) San Francisco-Tokyo (with a refuelling stop in Honolulu)

6 Which now-defunct US airline persuaded British Airways to extend its Heathrow-Washington Concorde to Dallas in Texas?

(a) Pan Am (b) Braniff (c) Eastern Airlines

7 Besides New York, Washington and Dallas, which is the only other US city to have been served by scheduled Concorde flights?

(a) Chicago (b) Miami (c) Los Angeles

8 The first scheduled transatlantic trip on Concorde was in 1976, for a fare of £431 return. By what factor has the fare increased since then?

(a) ten (b) twenty (c) five

9 On a fully loaded flight across the Atlantic, how much fuel is consumed for each passenger?

(a) 25 gallons (b) 250 gallons (c) 2,500 gallons

10 The British and French governments paid £1bn for each of the 14 production Concordes that were built. In effect, taxpayers have subsidised every passenger who has ever flown on Concorde. But by approximately how much?

(a) £330 (b) £3,300 (c) £33,000

Highlight here with your mouse for the answers: (b) to all