I subscribe to Canada NewsWire; a news service for Canada. My options say to send me any news item that has the word airline in it. On the morning of August 13, 2003, I received an e-mail about a press release put out by British Airways. As always, I read with earnest. I noticed that this one talked about a special fare for a special trip on Concorde across the Atlantic Ocean from London/ Heathrow International (LHR) to Lester B. Pearson International (YYZ) in Toronto Canada.
The release read:
The Celebration Fare for travel to/from London on Oct 1 is: – one way in World Traveller Plus, return on Concorde BA097 for C$7,999 – one way in Club World, return on Concorde BA097 for C$8,999 – one way in First Class, return on Concorde BA097 for C$9,999
Further down, it also said:
There will be a second opportunity for Canadians to fly Concorde on Thursday, October 2 when the aircraft departs Pearson International Airport at 6 p.m. for New York’s JFK Airport, arriving in New York at 7:55 p.m. EST. Those who want to experience Concorde for the subsonic flight to New York will be able to book a special one-way fare of $999.
This dubbed as one of the three Farewell trips for British Airways’ Concorde that will be retired on October 24, 2003. The other two will be to Boston Logan (BOS) and Washington-Dulles (IAD).
I was disappointed as the transatlantic fare was way beyond my reach. The 999 CAD, although high was a possibility. I forwarded it to a few friends and one of them snapped it up. Others were still deciding. I called and made the booking for us both.
Later that day, the other guy e-mailed that he was no longer interested as it was just too expensive, but I pressed on. The next day, I called up British Airways and asked to extend my hold period for another 24 hours and they said sure. The next day I called up and lo and behold, I had lost my seat and now the flight was full. Not sure what happened, but there was some snafu. I was told to keep calling back in case of cancellations.
For the next few days, I called every night just before midnight Eastern Time. No luck. I had done a trip to Kahului, Maui (OGG) and was on the flight at 5:55 p.m. local time (11:55 p.m. Eastern time). The agent said she had one seat left if I wanted it? Was that a question? Of course I did. I made the booking immediately, but did not have time to make the payment as the doors were closing. I told her to hold it for 24 hours and I’d call back the minute I landed in Houston.
Once in Houston the next morning at about 6:30 a.m., I was just too tired to deal with it, so later that day I called and completed the transaction. A few days later, I got my e-mail confirmation of the electronic ticket. I could not get an advanced seat assignment, but did enter my Executive Club number as well as a request for a window seat in the forward cabin.
As October 2, 2003 drew closer, I was not really excited; it was just another trip on a new aircraft type. I had done that many times before so how different could this be?
I left work at the end of the day on October 1, 2003 and headed for the airport. I was going to take the nonstop flight on a Continental Airlines flight to Toronto. It was a 50-seater Embraer ERJ-145 with Extended range and winglets for the journey. I had also looked in other opportunities as well; red eye over San Francisco (SFO) or Los Angeles (LAX) or a late flight to Cleveland (CLE) and then an early Air Canada Jazz (AC) flight to Toronto; just anything so that I would not miss that flight on the 2nd.
Deep in my stomach, I was excited, but it did not show at all. I arrived in Toronto on time and disembarked at the A gates, then bussed over to Terminal C for Immigration and Customs clearance. It was a little cold, so I donned the sports coat I was carrying over my arm. It had also just finished raining. I kept looking for Concorde as we taxied in, but it was safely stowed in a hangar somewhere.
Once I cleared Customs, I headed for the Hotel Shuttle area and as luck would have it, the Best Western Carlton Place shuttle was just passing by. Within minutes, I was at the hotel. I checked in and spent a few hours on the computer catching up with e-mail, etc. before retiring to bed.
I did not ask for a wake up call, but did ask for a late check out of 3 p.m.; this after some thought was granted. It was very cold out and I did not bring a heavy jacket, so I opted to stay in doors and veg. It was great waking up and not doing anything. I was up at 7 a.m. (couldn’t sleep I guess; excited) and watched the Today Show just as if I was home.
Later that day, I dragged myself out of bed and prepared to depart. At 3 p.m., the shuttle bus was ready for departure and I was now on my way to my Concorde flight.
I approached the British Airways counter and saw that they had a special Concorde line; similar, but not as discreet as they do in Heathrow of course (wonder what will happen to that area in Heathrow now that Concorde will be no more…).
I was greeted with smiles from the agent who checked me in expeditiously, ensuring to weigh my two bags; it is Concorde, but rules are rules. I was given my boarding pass with seat 12A written on it. How nice I thought. I had called up the night before and the agent had told me that I was assigned 12A. She also explained that about 70% of the seats are assigned before the day of departure and the rest on day of departure. She was kind of weird as I asked her how forward that was and she did not know and did not care to find out. I did not have Internet access at the time otherwise; I would have done it myself.
I was given a map of the concourse which showed the location of the British Airways lounge. This was accompanied by a self-declaration for SARS. As I cleared security, I looked out the big windows and saw my ride being towed to the gate. Due to the inefficiency of the security personnel, I missed any possible photo opportunities. Two of the agents were arguing with each other; the lady pointing a finger at a guy agent and saying “Don’t you speak to me that way ever again.” Meanwhile, we all waited for this to finish so that we could continue through.
The security agents were also very excited to see my boarding pass with “Concorde” written on it. They all wished me a pleasant flight. So that is what it feels like to be a celebrity…
By now Concorde had made its way amid many ramp workers to gate C29. I went over to get some pictures, but it was in an awkward place. I turned in the opposite direction and found the Lounge. Nice, but regular. There was a Dining area in case you wanted to have your meal on the ground and sleep all the way to London. This area was not open for this flight. I could see other Concorde travelers milling around the lounge as well. It was weird, we were all there for the same thing, but we were all so quiet.
At about 10 minutes to 4 p.m. the agent made an announcement that there was refreshment at the gate so we should all venture out. I wrapped up my activities and headed that way.
They had the area roped off and had a spread of champagne (Piper Heidsieck) and hors d’ouvres. People were more laid back now and started to talk to each other. It was cool. 100 aviation geeks (O.K. enthusiasts) in a mostly white tube would be hurtling across the skies at .96 Mach very soon. Now I was getting excited.
G-BOAG was sitting at the gate waiting. Cameras were going off left, right and center; paparazzi? No just humans marveling at Concorde. The airport was a buzz of excitement; everyone stopped to look and was elated when they saw that long sleek nose of the one and only Concorde.
I stood with face close to the window just like everyone else taking photos. On the ground below, it was a frenzy as the ramp folks were posing and taking photos. The caterers took forever to cater the ship as they were also posing for photos.
As I stood there, I realized that I was indeed privileged; I was one (1) of one hundred (100) in the whole wide world…
I listened as an airport agent fired off questions in very quick succession at her co-worker; I wonder who are these travelers? It must have cost a fortune? How fast does it fly? How did they get tickets? Wow, this is really nice. I wish I could just get to walk on board to see how it is? She was like a two-year old. Her excitement was genuine. Her co-worker answered a few of her questions, and did state that the people flying must be crazy for taking this short flight and not flying supersonic. In my mind I thought; no, we are just aviation geeks who want to experience a marvelous machine; I don’t think we cared that we were not flying supersonic; at least I did not…
I then walked over and joined the rest of my flight mates. I mingled and sipped champagne as it rained outside. Even the heavens are crying today with happiness… Eventually, it stopped raining and cleared up, the sun eventually shining. This made for better photos. The windows also dried off as well.
The flight had a wide cross section of passengers; one guy had flown Concorde 21 times before and had brought his family along this time including a 6 month old baby; another had his 8-year old son from Washington D.C.; yet another flew in from London that very day just so he could make the flight. He runs http://www.ba97.com; catchy isn’t it. Still another came in from Ottawa, some from Toronto, another lives in Toronto, but had flown in that day from Munich Germany, where he was at Oktoberfest. I later met a guy from Washington D.C. who had only paid for his ticket that day after reserving it the night before; last minute cancellation I guess. The two guys sitting in front of me had come in from San Francisco that morning and stayed with friends in Toronto. Another guy was from Queens, New York; Me, I came in from Houston, Texas. I later met another guy from Honolulu, HI (HNL).
The stories were fantastic. Some would return home on Canadian low fare carrier Jetsgo from Newark (EWR) the next day, others by Amtrak, still others by regular scheduled service airlines. Some had combined this with a trip to see New York for the first time, like the lady and her daughter sitting across from my row. They had questions about New York city and I filled them in. They had a great location staying at the Doubletree in Times Square. All were waiting for the experience of a lifetime; a ride on a jet built for supersonic speed!
The captain showed up and made an announcement over the PA; I did not really hear him until he was done as I was busy socializing and taking photos.
Boarding soon started with the rear cabin first; so that’s how you board a First Class only jet? On board this tiny airplane, it was cool: As I boarded, to the left, was the cockpit with more switches than I’d ever seen anywhere, to the right, the about 6’ 3” high cabin I think, since I could just about stand comfortably. I was greeted by the chief flight attendant with a pleasant Welcome onboard Concorde.
The seats are blue leather in a 2-2 configuration. The overhead bins are expertly designed to give the cabin more space; not much can fit up there except a back pack, computer, bag, purse, etc.
There is a lot of leg room and the foot rest are built into the ground. There is adequate leg room of course. The first cabin has rows 1-11 and the second 12-26. Forty passengers in the front and sixty in the rear. There are two galleys, one in the front and another in the rear. Closets and the lavs as well as two exit doors are in the middle just forward of the wing.
I placed my stuff at my seat, said hello to my seat mate, who is originally from Guyana but now living in Washington D.C. and then started my tour. First the rear galley; small, but it works. I chatted with the flight attendant who had 22 years of service on Concorde with 30 years with British Airways. She took the obligatory photo of me in the cabin.
I then headed back towards my seat and a stop in the lav. Tiny, it is like being on a little 29-seater; just not designed for tall folks like me; 6’ 1”. I then went back to my seat; everyone was talking and talking photos and just having a good time.
As I sat, I noticed how tiny the windows were; you still had a good view of outside though. I started talking with my seat mate making introductions and finding out his story; he was the one who had bought his ticket just a few hours before. Some things are meant to be.
We buckled in and pushed back at 6:10 p.m. as I looked outside, the entire airport had stopped working, except for a Canjet Boeing 737-200 that was pushing back; what were they thinking? . It was like a greeting line at the end of a ball game.
The flight attendants did the safety demo manually, as this bird has no video systems. The seat recline is cool as well, the whole seat pitches back giving you a much better recline; I did scare the lady behind me though as it also moves the chair table.
After the demos, the Captain came on and welcomed us while the Second Officer gave commentary. They were clearly proud of the bird.
As I looked outside, I noticed that the parking garage was packed with onlookers; all eyes trained on Concorde. Funny how we were not delayed at all to the runway. The Captain told us that he had driven the runway (33R) before to ensure that it was free of debris; this is usually done using GPS, but Toronto is not usually a Concorde city, so it had to be done manually here.
We paused at the threshold for a few minutes and then blasted down the runway; 0-250 mph in 30 seconds; 70 tons of power with 121 tons of weight, need I say more. We were off the ground before you knew it (in about 35 seconds) and the “Welcome To Concorde” image changed to the Mach speed with altitude on one side and the outside air temperature and the speed in MPH on the other. The cabin erupted in cheers; I had immediate goose bumps.
At 5,500 feet, we were at 0.42Mach! The Captain turned off the after burners quickly as we were climbing too fast; you could feel the airplane decelerate immediately, it was incredible. I looked around the cabin and the expression on everyone’s face were the same; elation, I’m on Concorde!
We continued our climb and the service commenced. Our cruisin’ altitude today would be at 28,000′ flying at .96 Mach as opposed to the usual 53,000′ and 1,350 mph over the Atlantic Ocean. We had been given dated menus (02 October 2003) before takeoff with a wine list included.
Today’s offerings were a fresh fruit appetizer with poached salmon terrine with lentil and potato salad. This was accompanied crackers and Stilton, extra old white Cheddar and triple cream Brie cheeses. This was served all at once. One could consume as much champagne and wine as you could handle as well. Our choices were Pol Roger 1986 Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill champagne, Chassagne-Montrachet 1 er Cru Les Vergers 1997 Chatron et Trebuchet (white wine), Chateau La Lagune 1995 Grand Cru Classé Haut-Médoc (red wine) and Warre’s 1982 Colheita Port. Hungry?
The Captain came on and said we had to move from 28,000’ feet to avoid traffic. As we headed for 36,000’, I noticed that for a brief moment, the display showed Mach 1.0 at 30,000’, actually, my seat mate noticed it and called it to my attention; how nice! The move from 28,000’ to 36,000’ was so quick it was not funny.
We had a very pleasant flight, folks just oohing and aahhing at everything. We had a spectacular view of the New York area as we flew down Manhattan; seeing the Tappan Zee Bridge, as well as the George Washington Bridge. We had to make a circle so I got a chance to see the Long Island sound as we turned and landed on runway 31R in JFK to cheers and a lot of noise from the engine retarding our motion.
It felt weird, it all happened too quickly. We taxied to the gate and had to wait for a bit. Concorde does not have an auxiliary power unit like other airplanes, so it must be hooked up to ground power before the engines are killed. The ground crew had a little trouble getting this accomplished so we had to wait. No one was annoyed though, we all just sat and waited; it was weird. I had never seen this before. It was 59 minutes from push back in Toronto until we were chocked in JFK.
Eventually, we all exited and even then others were still sitting. I deplaned with my new Concorde friends, receiving a flight certificate (signed by Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge (BA’s Chairman) and the Captain) from an agent as I did so. I was fulfilled and ready for the next adventure.
Have you ever flown Concorde? Please leave a comment below and let me know how was your trip?