In an age of cut-rate air travel, some opt to pay $20 a minute

May 29, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

There are reasons, you know, to spend $3,900 flying from Washington to London.

For cardiologist John Simpson, the supersonic Concorde was the only way to make a really nice connection in London for Toulouse, France. For the Schulte-Frohlinde couple from Germany, the three-hour trip was an alluring way to go home after an exhausting day buying a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

For Peter and Jennifer Pittman, a middle-aged Australian couple with a penchant and a pocketbook for the exotic, it was a chance to do something a little different.

"We could have taken first class to London and sat seven hours drinking champagne. But why do that again?" said Mr. Pittman, a Sydney business executive who was preparing to board the Concorde at Washington Dulles International Airport on Friday.

The Concorde is, after all, the ultimate time machine, a monument to high technology and high aspirations built by the British and French in defiance of economic reality and social needs. Today, in an era of discount fares and peanuts for dinner, passengers are still paying nearly $20 a minute to zip across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound.

Two decades after the "sports car in the air" first captured the public's imagination, people still come to watch it take off at Dulles. Last week, hundreds of people lined up in Philadelphia just to peek inside its cramped, tunnel-like cabin.

At a time the airline industry has lost billions of dollars and grounded hundreds of planes, the Concorde has continued to fly, sometimes with only a handful of passengers. It has endured as a symbol of a growing global economy -- and a reminder that the rich will pay nearly any price for luxury and convenience.

"We're taking it because it's fast," said Lynn Simpson, a Californian who was traveling with her husband to attend a medical meeting in Toulouse.

The 3,660-mile journey from Washington to London takes less than 3 1/2 hours. Traveling westward, the five-hour time difference means the Concorde arrives before it leaves.

Aviation toy of the royal

The $7,800 round trip is a little pricy for all but the super-affluent. And most of them fly, of course, on someone else's money. The Concorde has long been the aviation toy of the royal, the $H famous, corporate executives and diplomats.

Ivan Boesky, the fallen Wall Street financier, frequently flew the Concorde to London, sometimes buying the seat beside him just for privacy. Queen Elizabeth II hopped on to return quickly to Buckingham Palace from the Caribbean.

To avoid jet lag, U.S. golfers take the Concorde to England. A dozen members of the Thai royal family have flown from New York to London en masse.

"Time and health is money for many people," says Sandy Gardiner, vice president at British Airways, which flies six of the world's 12 Concordes. Air France operates the other six.

But during the recession and the Persian Gulf war, even the Concorde took an economic hit. Under intense public scrutiny, World Bank executives started flying less-expensive 747s. Executives who traveled on the Concorde stepped down to first class.

The Concorde once even flew with five passengers in the 100-seat cabin. In the early '90s, British Airways cut in half its Concorde service, to just one daily flight between New York and London and temporarily suspended its three weekly trips from Dulles. It permanently scrapped its Miami service.

Still, with only Air France operating the world's other supersonic commercial planes, the British felt little competitive pressure to lower prices.

"We don't do discount, we don't do cheap fares," Capt. David Rowland, head of Concorde operations, says emphatically.

"This is a unique aircraft. There are planes that can go [either] xTC higher, faster, further and carry more people," he said. "But nothing [commercially] in the world can do what a Concorde can do."

A downturned beak

The sleek aircraft resembles a bird with a downturned beak. It is relatively small for a jet: 204 feet long. Its delta-like wings span only 84 feet. Aircraft aficionados call it the world's most beautiful, high-flying silhouette.

It cruises at 50,000 to 60,000 feet, at least 10,000 feet higher than most commercial jets, avoiding both weather and traffic control woes. On a clear day, you can see the curvature of the earth.

At 1,350 miles an hour, or twice the speed of sound, the friction created by blasting through the sound barrier is so intense that its 5-by-7-inch windows heat up. The Concorde flies at that speed only over deserts or oceans to minimize the impact of sonic boom on the world below.

Inside, the service is elegant. Passengers sip Dom Perignon champagne, 20-year-old Johnny Walker Blue scotch. They have their choice of lobster, lamb chops, wild rice and lemon mousse.

But on a flight from Dulles on Thursday, destined for Philadelphia (not a typical stopping point), about 70 less-well-heeled passengers got a more limited taste of Concorde's flair.

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