Barnett on Business Travel



October 30, 2003 -- She is 35 years old with 27 years airborne, a dottering old lady by aircraft standards. But the supersonic Concorde showed she still has her sleek good looks, style and speed--if not profitability--during her final flights before British Airways grounded her last week.

On October 1, a Concorde streaked from New York's Kennedy Airport to London Heathrow in 3 hours and 20 minutes, 10 minutes ahead of schedule, crossing the Atlantic 11 miles above the earth at 1,360 miles an hour, traveling faster than a speeding bullet. I know. I was on it.

It was a victory lap for the bat-winged glamour gal. A small percentage of her hard-core corporate passengers were aboard, but most of the 100 seats were filled with aviation buffs, Concorde alums and nostalgic travelers who paid up to $6,336 for a one-way flight to be a part of history. (Two seats for the last flight on Thursday, October 23, fetched $60,000 at auction).

I didn't spot any bona fide celebrities on our flight, but some regulars were clearly morose to know that British Airways was sending its seven supersonics to museums.

"This is a sad day for me because it will be my last flight on the Concorde," sighed New York fashion designer Michael Kors. He had flown the Air France Concorde to Paris for years until the French flag carrier grounded its five needle-nose jets on May 30. So Kors started flying BA's Concorde to London and connecting to a commuter flight to Paris. He said he still saved three hours in the air over a subsonic, transatlantic flight to the French capital.

My seatmate, a dour European who wouldn't divulge his name, picked at his food, read newspapers and slept, had a shorter eulogy: "It just saves me time. That's all. And it's all over."

When times were flush, Europeans could fly Concorde to New York for a meeting, grab a lunch and be home that night. U.S. travelers leaving New York could fly Concorde in the morning, arrive in London or Paris in the afternoon, have a business dinner and still get a full night's sleep without jet lag. No more.

British Airways said it retired the Concorde fleet, nicknamed "the rockets," because manufacturer Airbus Industries would no longer supply parts or technical support at commercially acceptable prices--and without a $60 million advance.

No surprise, however, that many English people--affluent, mighty or with robust expense accounts at least--were touched. "Concorde was always a symbol to me that the sun had not set on the British Empire after all because she could outrun the sun," said Peter Lloyd, a retired London investment banker.

But Concorde wasn't a moneymaker at the end, weighed down by the stock-market meltdown, a sputtering global economy, corporate belt tightening, the September 11th terrorist attacks and other global woes. "And there was very little hope that Concorde would recover its profitability--at least over the next two to three years," said BA spokesman John Lampl.

Still, time-crunched business travelers are hardly stranded or confined to steerage. BA's first class combines the best attributes of a company jet, a hotel room and an office in surprisingly private compartments that are far more than just lie-flat 6-foot, 6-inch beds.

Designed by a yacht architect, BA's first-class accommodations have a nearly two-foot square tabletop that slides out. It's also has the equivalent of a desk return by the window. You can spread out files, papers, receipts and everything you accumulate on an international business trip, power up a laptop--a power supply is at each seat--and work comfortably and productively.

Frankly, given a choice between a 3.5-hour Concorde crossing with no in-flight movies and little space and a leisurely, 8-hour, first-class flight with time to think, relax, work, catch up on movies and feast or nibble on serious food, I'd choose the latter.

(British Air's Club World business class with its semi-private flat-bed sleeper seats is a more realistic option, but keep alert to special deals. A three-day sale that ended today cut business-class fares by more than 60 percent. Sources say BA is about to start selling Club World seats on an advanced-purchase, discounted basis. But the best price deal of all may be World Traveller Plus, BA's "fourth class" that offers more perks and legroom than coach.)

Meanwhile, what Concorde delivered was raw speed and extremely attentive service. A staff of six flight attendants doted on as many as 100 passengers on a sold-out flight, but they rarely had a full house to serve after November, 2001, when the Concorde fleet returned to the skies after a safety retrofit. Ironically, Concorde regulars were largely aloof, self-important power players who rarely smiled or delighted in the pampering lavished on them.

The folks who visibly enjoyed Concorde most were travelers who flew it as a novelty or rare treat and the handpicked crew working the flights. For them, working Concorde was a badge of honor.

There is--or was--a lot to enjoy. On the ground, BA's 20,000-square-foot Concorde Lounge at JFK was a sanctuary of calm and comfort. Herman Miller's iconic Eames chairs and ottomans were sprinkled throughout. A continual buffet breakfast and bar were constantly replenished. Every daily newspaper and current magazine you could possibly want was stacked
high. There was a telephone for unlimited free long-distance calling.

On board, steaming towels hot out of the oven were served on a sterling silver tray. A sommelier was on hand to pour the Pol Roger '96 Brut Champagne and explain the pedigree of the other wines aboard. There was a solid steel drop-down table large enough to steadily support the bulkiest laptop. Other perks: blue leather seats that were not particularly wide and did not lay back flat, but were contoured and comfortable. There was brunch anytime you wanted it: lamb filet, grilled spiced sea bass with Caviar cream sauce, traditional English breakfast and a nonstop parade of salmon canapés, apple tarts and cheeses.

First-run movies? There wasn't enough time on Concorde to screen a full film and also serve an elaborate meal, too. But, for me, the in-flight entertainment was the passengers who weren't too jaded to sleep through a once-in-a-lifetime thrill in a museum-bound airplane that first took wing on a test-flight nearly a third of a century ago.

"I've been lying in bed at night awake and fretting that I would miss this flight and never again fly at the speed of sound," said Andrew McNaughton, a congenial London engineer who claims he designed several parts for the Concorde. "But this is not my last time. I'm going to find this very plane in the museum, somehow get into the exhibit and sit in seat 10A once more. I promise you."

It's probably the only way he'll be in anything close to a supersonic transport in his lifetime. Thirty years ago, the Anglo-French predecessor to Airbus figured it would sell 200 Concordes. But only 16 were actually built and all of them went to investor-partners British Airways and Air France. There are no supersonic transports currently in production and none being seriously contemplated.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.