To Infinity & Beyond

Posted by in February's Magazine

Scotland’s National Museum of Flight has plans to build a new hangar to showcase its prize exhibit Concorde, which attracted nearly 80,000 people last year. Kennedy Wilson recalls a time of a more luxurious – and speedy – mode of air travel



A by-product of the 1960s space-race, Concorde promised a new wave of fast transatlantic travel, London to New York in three hours or Paris to Rio in seven. On the London to NY flight passengers would arrive one hour before their London departure (accounting for local time). It was a wonder.

What captured the public imagination most was not only travel at twice the speed of sound but an aircraft with a futuristic design that looked like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 movie 2001: a Space Odyssey. The supersonic aircraft’s delta-wing design made for a graceful shape. The plane was the E-type Jag of the skies or, as an observer put it; “if the gods needed a plane, Concorde was the way to go.” The startling, all-white mirror-polished fuselage reduced drag.

A new book   by Lawrence Azerrad looks at the elegant style of Concorde from 1970s-deco departure lounges to freebies like whisky flasks and cigarette lighters, from the smart typography of its logo to its aspirational advertising. ‘There was at that time a palpable hopefulness for a better future, a spirit of curiosity and optimism that, if not genuine, was at least reflected in the designs of the age that eventually helped set the stage for supersonic commercial travel’, writes Azerrad.

In its 27 years in commercial service, run by British Airways and Air France, Concorde generated largely friendly rivalry, each carrier trying to out-do the other in luxury and style. The Price for a return ticket was enormous and travelling Concorde were business fat cats, superstars and pools winners looking for the experience of a lifetime. It flew above the planet’s weather, a wondrous deep indigo of space outside the windows.

Concorde was a serene form of transport that is almost unimaginable in today’s world of endless security checks and the deprivations of budget airlines. Celebrity guests included Mick Jagger, the Queen, Elton John, the Duchess of York and Maya Angelou. Harvey Weinstein was said to have admitted to a sly cigarette in the lavatory. Paul McCartney once serenaded fellow passengers with an impromptu Beatles’ medley.

Concorde prided itself on its five-star luxury although the cabin was claustrophobic, the aisle cramped and the seats narrow. There quickly developed a status hierarchy. Although all seats were First Class the first seven rows of the front of the cabin were the most desirable. Non-VIPs sat further back.

Top-class wine and food was served. Royal Doulton provided the branded china crockery for BA. Passengers were coddled with champagne and lobster and interior designers like Terence Conran, Raymond Loewy and Andrée Putman gave the look and feel of Concorde, its branding and merchandising something special. Plates and silverware were often stolen as souvenirs. The magpie-natured Andy Warhol was one of the first people to recognise the collectable nature of anything stamped ‘Concorde’.

Concorde lounges at Kennedy and Heathrow were styled to look as futuristic as the in-flight experience. “We call them rooms rather than lounges, because a lounge is for the business classes—‘room’, we thought, sounded posher,” said designer Conran. 

But what was meant to be the great white hope of Anglo-French entente and engineering (the French called the Concorde l’oiseau blanc) became a white elephant. The reasons for Concorde’s final failure – its last flight was 15 years ago – were part environmental and part political. There was little sympathy for the gas-guzzling aircraft with its deafening ‘sonic boom’. All this just so that Joan Collins could get to New York in time for brunch. 

‘The main reason that the rest of the world gave up on the Concorde was, in a word, noise. Concorde could fly supersonic only over unpopulated areas: bodies of water and uninhabited land. This restriction severely limited air routes and all but ruled out lucrative transcontinental routes such as New York/Los Angeles’, wrote David Camp in Vanity Fair magazine.

Concorde was a noisy monster even when it wasn’t flying supersonic, “producing about 119 decibels of noise at take-off, roughly the same as a 1950s jet,” commented one observer. Richard Branson had hopes to take over the flight of the Concordes but to no avail.

Then, July 2000 saw a crash of a Concorde, Air France Flight 4590, on take-off at Paris. Some 118 passengers and crew died. There were no survivors. The accident was horribly captured on video. It was the fatal blow for the aging fleet and the planes were withdrawn in 2003.

Info: Supersonic by Lawrence Azerrad is published by Prestel £27.50 RRP 

Twitter: @kenwilson84

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