Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the Thames

Saturday 17 April 2004 00:00 BST

On Tuesday afternoon, the walking wounded came out to watch the floating wounded. The scenes outside St Thomas's Hospital on the South Bank of the Thames were remarkable. All the patients who were able left their wards and shuffled out to the riverside on crutches or in wheelchairs. Even a man doing a convincing impression of Vincent van Gogh in his tragic later days turned out for the event, though the word on the shore was that his auditory injury had been sustained during a south London pub brawl, rather than in artistic anguish.

As splashes of pale sunshine carved an impressionistic path through the clouds, the vision proceeding downriver at hobbling pace was surreal. Concorde was on her final, forlorn journey, aboard a barge heading east to the sea.

G-BOAA was the first British Airways Concorde to carry fare-paying passengers, and the last to be pensioned off from the airline's base at Heathrow. She was one of seven supersonic sisters, but was effectively written out of the Concorde soap opera after the Paris crash in 2000. The investigation into the Air France disaster, which killed 113 people, demanded expensive safety measures. Other supersonic aircraft were anointed with millions of pounds' worth of upgrades, but "Alpha Alpha" became a plane to be plundered for parts. With her aviation equivalent of the MOT long expired, her last voyage was not at a scorching 1,350mph and 60,000 feet across the Atlantic, but at an altitude of three feet and a tide-assisted speed of 2mph. Facing backwards.

No secondhand market exists for supersonic airliners. So when British Airways grounded Concorde last October, it could hardly advertise in Loot to offload its seven superfluous supersonic jets. Instead, they were given away to deserving museums. Most of the planes were still in tip-top condition, and could be flown to their destination airports. But East Lothian's Museum of Flight was sold a bit of a pup.

Every passenger who has ever flown on Concorde has been subsidised to the tune of £3,000, at current prices. Now the Scots are obliged to fork out an extra £2m to drag the redundant jet north. The plane has been torn apart; its wings have already been trucked north, with only its torso drifting along the East Coast by barge. Once patched up, it will be on display at the former RAF base of East Fortune; after this exercise, the shoulder of Scotland is to be renamed Costa Fortune.

The reaction of the crowds who lined the river showed the power of Concorde to arouse even deeper emotions than a heartfelt rendition of "Jerusalem". The world's fastest and most beautiful airliner was built in England's green and pleasant land (with a bit of help from the French). Now the designers' dreams and the flying machine lay in pieces.

The St Thomas's patients made do with the uplifting sight of the slender fuselage being uplifted for the benefit of MPs (whose mad idea Concorde originally was). But those of us with bicycles performed an elaborate dance across the bridges of London. From Westminster via Southwark to Tower, hardened cycle couriers shed tears for the final, funereal progress of G-BOAA. Hardly any of the audience had flown on Concorde, but we shared amazement that man's passion for speed could conceive so magnificent a folly.

When Concorde started flying the Atlantic in 1976, everyone on board paid the same flat fare of £431 return. In the olden days, air fares were fixed irrespective of how popular a particular flight was or how far in advance a passengers booked and paid. These days, few things are as fluid as the price of an aircraft seat.

A year ago, Now Airlines vowed to change all that, and put an end to the annoying business of finding that the person in the next seat had paid a fraction of the fare you stumped up.

"We believe it's time for a new airline," promised the start-up carrier, based at Luton airport. "Every seat on each flight is the same price."

So everyone aboard the inaugural flight to Rome pays £60. And even if the plane breaks down, there's another one behind: "Like many quality mainstream airlines, Now will have standby planes available at short notice to back up regular flights". That was the plan. But Now has no standby planes, nor indeed any aircraft at all. The airline failed to take off on schedule last summer, despite a pledge of help from the East of England Development Agency, which earmarked £300,000 to get the project off the ground. Nor did sales start as planned in July; "towards the end of 2003" proved over-optimistic, too. The last communiqué, in December, vowed that the airline would announce launch plans in the New Year. It didn't.

Perhaps investors are unconvinced that the business model can work. Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Michael O'Leary, the driving forces behind easyJet and Ryanair, made stupendous amounts of cash through the black art of yield management: the business of trying to fill every seat on every flight at as high a fare as possible.

A typical no-frills flight carries some passengers who booked months ahead for, say £50; others who bought in the few days before departure and paid as much as £150; and some crafty travellers who took advantage of special top-up promotions paid barely more than marginal cost, typically £15. But Now's bold promise of a truly flat fare turns conventional airline wisdom on its head.

"We're here because we believe we have something to offer," the chief executive, Lars Welinder, told me this week: "Low-cost delivered with a smile."

Yet in the past year of missed deadlines, the market has become even more crowded. The two giants, easyJet and Ryanair, have become even bigger, and the traditional airlines are cutting costs. Foreign airlines are filling the empty slots at Luton. Just up the M1, a new airport has opened at Coventry, owned and operated by Europe's biggest holiday company; Thomsonfly's route network bears a strong resemblance to Now's. Low-cost competition is intense: Bmibaby this week chased easyJet off the routes from Nottingham to Glasgow and Barcelona.

Meanwhile, Mr Welinder's paper airline has got no closer to take-off, and the slogan "We do it right Now" looks as sad as Concorde's last flight, sorry, float.

I hope Now takes off: travellers would enjoy even more choice, and the chance to snap up half-term flights to Tenerife for about half the usual rate. But I cannot see investors ploughing millions into an airline that keeps fares constant. To fill off-peak flights, you need low fares.

For Concorde, fixed prices and half-empty planes did not matter, because you and I were not given any choice about underwriting the supersonic jet's losses. Now we are spoilt for choice about which flights to put our money into, I fear Now will become Never.

Museum of Flight (01620 880 308, open 10am-5pm daily, admission £4

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