Simon Calder: 10 years after Concorde – newfound landings
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 23 November 2013
As Concorde made its final turn into a technological cul-de-sac, Phillip Atcliffe was watching. "I was at Filton Airport waiting for her to come in."
The supersonic jet's ultimate flight took place a month after the final, ceremonial commercial arrivals at Heathrow. On 26 November 2003, Concorde flew from British Airways' base back to the womb – in the shape of Filton, north of Bristol. It was here that the British half of the Anglo-French grand projet was born, in the days when the future for travellers was seen as the ability to cross the Atlantic in under four hours.
Now, 10 years after that sad, wet Wednesday, Dr Atcliffe is senior lecturer in aeronautical engineering at Salford University – and a hypersonic hotshot. But he is pessimistic about ultra-fast flight happening anytime soon: "You need money and political will – which aren't forthcoming."
In the absence of any collective appetite to break the sound barrier, there is an alternative. I am delighted to reveal that you will soon be able to cross the Atlantic in under four hours – so long as you fly from St John's in Newfoundland to Dublin between 15 June and 5 October next year.
The "block time" is four hours and 15 minutes – less than BA schedules for its Gatwick-Tenerife flights. Allowing for pushback and taxiing in Newfoundland and Ireland, the time in the air should be just shy of four hours.
I wrote only a fortnight ago about how the one big opportunity in no-frills aviation was a transatlantic link to and from St John's, which is the nearest North American airport to the British Isles. I speculated that Belfast was in with a shout.
Right island, wrong city.
This week a successful and ambitious low-cost airline announced flights from Dublin. It will use short-haul Boeing 737s – the only jet the airline flies. But it may not be the carrier you first thought of. Ryanair tells me "transatlantic flights are still some years away". Instead, the airline taking a giant leap with the smallest step across the Atlantic is WestJet of Canada. This Calgary-based carrier is just three months younger than easyJet. Until now, it has flown only within North America and the Caribbean. But for an airline that flies to the corners of Canada – the world's second-biggest country – the Atlantic is hardly a challenge. Dublin to St John's, at 2,050 miles, is shorter than Toronto to Vancouver.
Don't expect startlingly cheap fares. Flying out on the last Saturday in July, back two weeks later, you will pay the equivalent of £550. Add perhaps £150 for a return flight from your local airport in Britain to the Irish capital, and the "low-cost" trip totals £700. But that is 40 per cent less than Air Canada is quoting on the same dates for its non-stop service from Heathrow to St John's.
It's a breeze
A slightly cheaper supersonic substitute? In terms of sheer speed over the ground (or the ocean), the best a mere mortal can hope for is a flight from the US to Europe in winter. With luck you will benefit from terrific tailwinds, which the flight crew will seek out in order to reduce flying time and fuel burn. On my last flight from San Diego to London, in early December, the ground speed shown on the seatback screen touched 723mph. The speed of sound at the plane's cruising altitude is about 660mph, but no sound barrier was broken because the Boeing 777's speed through the air was only 535mph.
With the help of the supercharged jet stream, I arrived at Heathrow 70 minutes early – and paid a lot less for the experience than that summer trip to St John's would cost.
Along the way, you may fly over BA's son-of-Concorde. The airline reserves flight numbers 1-4 for its links between London City and New York. A specially adapted Airbus A318 flies the Atlantic with just 32 business-class seats aboard. Two drawbacks: the lowest fare is about five times the cheapest economy seat on BA's standard 777. And, unlike Concorde, its offspring is slower than a conventional jet. The Airbus must stop on the outbound leg in Shannon to refuel; 777 passengers can depart five minutes later yet arrive 80 minutes earlier. Even coming back, the schedule shows the exclusive plane taking 20 minutes longer.
For a lower-cost Concordesque experience, book a short-haul flight on British Airways from London City airport. You will fly from the Docklands airport on a Brazilian-made Embraer jet, hopefully the 190 version. This plane is a lot less pointy and graceful than Concorde from the outside. But inside it has a cabin profile almost identical to the supersonic jet, with the same two-by-two seating and generous legroom. And it is just two seats short of Concorde's capacity of 100.
Sitting aboard, you can enjoy an intimate, clubby and (dare I say) elitist atmosphere. But don't expect an elaborate meal and free champagne: on BA CityFlyer, pretzels and a beer are more the style.
Outrun the Sun
The most magical of Concorde's many achievements was the ability to outrun the Sun, crossing time zones more quickly than the rotation of the Earth. Well, there is precisely one transatlantic flight that still offers the experience of arriving before you took off, local time – and it connects Iceland with Alaska.
Icelandair flight FI1679, which restarts next May, departs Reykjavik at 5.10pm. It spends most of its flight north of the Arctic Circle, ticking off time zones and reaching the terminal in Anchorage at 4.20pm. It is an enthralling journey, revealing the vast expanses of Greenland and Arctic Canada in all their extreme glory. Judging from Concorde's short lifespan, nature's version of extreme glory is more durable than man's.
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