The destination for history

Concorde: Flying hotel to pocket rocket


Concorde was an entirely new working environment. The familiar spacious cabins of the 747s were replaced with a narrow, low-ceilinged interior (the cabin height being 6ft 5 in (1.96m)) and grey leather seats that exuded exclusivity. This was more private jet than flying machine for the masses. With it came a new reverence for the job. Despite my seven years’ flying experience I still remember being extremely nervous on my first Concorde flight.  

Up until 1981 the Concorde crew led a pretty easy life. They worked, on average, a 7-hour week. The pay was comparatively low due to fewer overseas allowances, but the glamour stakes were high. When Concorde first started its commercial flights in 1976, the crew were regarded as pioneers. Julia van den Bosch, one of the original stewardesses who stayed on it until its retirement in 2003, recalls a publicity reception at the Dorchester Hotel in London. One of the guests, the Duchess of Argyll, came up to Julia and shook her by the hand. ‘So brave,’ she commented. ‘You are so brave to fly on an aircraft to the edge of space.’

The British Airways long-haul flight rules (which included any flights outside of Europe) made provision that the cabin crews were entitled to four days off after a flight back to their London base. In the early days, Concorde came under this umbrella. This, of course, provided an envious lifestyle and one Cockney steward on short haul was known to refer to the Concorde crew as ‘those from ’arrods whilst the rest of us were from Woolies’.

In the seventies and early eighties, the schedules to Washington included a five-day stopover. There were idyllic days in the summer of long lunches, picnics and rowing on the Potomac Rive. To while away the time the crews also got into a routine of making up afternoon tea for the incoming crew.

In New York there was a similar relaxed lifestyle. A leisurely crew breakfast in one of the local coffee shops was followed by shopping at Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Korvettes, a visit to the Guggenheim and other galleries, long drawn out lunches at Tavern on the Green in Central Park and the lure of theatre shows and opera in the evening. The Rainbow Room, Studio 54 and other famous hotspots were also on the crew agenda. In winter, the stewardesses’ luggage contained exotic fur coats for the luncheon parties that followed their arrival into New York. On the fourth day they would fly home in 3 hours and 30 minutes, or less, to spend another four days unpacking their shopping and enjoying a pretty civilised home life.

The first stopover of a Concorde route to south-east Asia was the inaugural flight between London Heathrow (LHR) and Bahrain (BAH) on 21 January 1976. The route was mainly overland, forcing Concorde to fly at subsonic speeds on large portions of the London-Bahrain sector. But the aircraft still managed to save around 2 hours 30 minutes over the regular flights with a Mach 0.95 cruise speed. In December 1977, three flights a week to Singapore commenced but they were stopped after just three return flights following complaints from the Malaysian Government regarding the noise over the Straits of Malacca.

The Bahrain to Singapore trip for flight and cabin crew was nine days and run jointly with Singapore Airlines. The flight and operational crew were British Airways whilst the cabin crew was 50 per cent Singaporean girls, who, incidentally, never failed to win over the flight crew and no doubt added extra exotica to their flying schedule. The aircraft used for this route (G-BOAD) was painted with the Singapore Airlines livery on one side and British Airways on the other. 

In 1979 these services were resumed, this time avoiding Malaysia, but sadly the plug was pulled on this service in November 1980 as the revenue figures showed the route had low passenger numbers and was losing £2 million a year. It was rumoured that after the showing of the controversial film Death of a Princess on British TV, the Saudi Government declined to have Concorde and this service was also halted. 

The flights to Dallas / Fort Worth in 1979 became a loss-making route and were cancelled in 1980. Concorde was now left with destinations to New York, Washington, Miami and various charters. Air France discontinued their service to Washington in 1982; from then on New York became its only scheduled destination.

By 1981 the future of Concorde looked bleak. The government had lost money on Concorde operations annually and it was mooted that it would cease to fly. The government gave the airline two years to turn the loss around. The chairman of British Airways, Sir John King, remained convinced that Concorde was a premier product and underpriced. Market research revealed that many nigh-flying businessmen did not actually buy their own tickets, this task was delegated to their PA or secretary. Therefore, many did not know the cost and, when asked, thought the fare was much higher than it actually was. Ticket prices were then raised to match these perceptions. Sir John persuaded the government to sell Concorde outright to his airline for a mere £16.5 million plus the first year’s profits. In two years Concorde changed its fortunes – it started making big profits. 

Timing, as they say, is everything in life, and it soon became apparent that the exclusive Concorde crew lifestyle was neither viable for the company nor realistically feasible to run conjointly with the other hard-working fleets of BA. When I joined the Concorde fleet in 1981 it had been operating for five years and a cost-saving exercise was about to be implemented. British Airways crew management, in their wisdom, decided to change the flying regulations and bring Concorde working hours in line with the rest of the BA fleets (an ’arrod’s-Woolies merger, perhaps?)

I had six weeks of the ‘old style life’ before the merger. From then on Concorde was switched to the short-haul fleet under the auspices of shorter flying hours compared with the long-haul flights. With the 3-hour 30-minute flying time across the Atlantic, the cabin crews were now able to work the next day, forgoing their fours days off previously guaranteed under the long-haul rules. They could now fly six consecutive days, and this could include another Concorde flight across the Atlantic, or a BAC 1-11 or 737 flights into Europe. This now became a matter of flying hours and not distance and the six-day short-haul roster came into force, allowing three days off in the UK after this work period. And we were effectively trained to fly on three aircraft. 

In the early days of the changeover, I was one of the few left who had flown on the aircraft whilst under the long-haul agreement. Many of the original Concorde stewardesses, having rightly guessed that this was the end of a very comfortable era, had left under the new rules. Their elitist lifestyle had become part of Concorde history, and so a new intake of short-haul crew was trained for the Concorde operation. The more experienced of us were called upon by the office hierarchy to initiate the new recruits and I found myself flying across the Atlantic on six consecutive days. Six crossings in six days was a tall order and I was completely exhausted at the end of my 18,000-mile commuting week. Fortunately this situation did not last for long.

The stress and workload for the new crews and experienced hands that ensued in those initial weeks were not ideal. The short-haul crew, in fairness, had not been trained to do a first-class service before their Concorde training so their learning curves were steeper than Concorde’s climb rate after take-off with an empty load. They very quickly learnt that speed was of the essence and landing with meal trays still in their hands was not the best way to arrive at their destination.

Despite our reputation for superlative professionalism there was inevitably the odd calamity, and not only during the changeover from long-haul crew to short-haul crew. We can all recall the landings when the reverse thrust of the engines brought the aircraft to a shuddering halt on the runway. During this procedure on a number of occasions one of the trolleys would jump out of its restraining straps and trundle off on its own journey down the aisle gaining momentum with the speed of the aircraft’s braking. One trolley, on such an occasion, even managed to reach the flight deck door. Strapped in as we were, the crew could do little to halt its wayward path. I often wondered what passengers made of this.

Extracted from Vintage Champagne on the Edge of Space by Sally Armstrong

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