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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October, 2003, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
What will replace Concorde?

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America Business Correspondent

Luxury travel will never be the same
The world's only successful supersonic passenger airliner, Concorde, makes its last flight from JFK airport in New York to London on Friday. What will be left for the world's jet-setters once the ultimate flying machine is grounded?

Depending on who you fly with in America, the tone of the flight is very different.

On British Airways, flying across the Atlantic, you invariably get a re-assuring English accent (it always seems to be smooth English) from someone called Nigel (it always seems to be Nigel).

These people would make you feel safe in a Force Ten Gale on a trip over Germany in 1943.

On the other hand, the tone of some of the American airlines can be markedly different.

In California, a friend recently heard the steward on one of the smaller carriers make the announcement: "Should this flight suddenly turn into a cruise..."

Too relaxed?

Concorde was foisted on British Airways and Air France by their governments; not a single aircraft was ever commercially sold

And where British Airways seems to have stuck with a certain formality among its cabin staff, its American competitors are much more relaxed - sometimes too relaxed.

The same friend on a different flight witnessed an exchange between a steward and a Jewish passenger for whom no kosher meal was available.

The passenger said that the vegetarian option would be fine.

To which the steward replied: "What, not feeling so religious today, sir?"

Fierce competition

Of course, both approaches may have their merits.

The laid-back Americans seem unstuffy; the formal Brits seem more homely.

All of this matters because the oceans of red ink swirling round airline balance sheets in America mean that non-price competition is much more important.

Sitting cramped in economy for hours is never pleasant so, given the fierceness of competition on price, every airline needs to offer whatever little low-cost extra it can - like a friendly tone or even a bit of humour - to fill more seats.

Surly flight attendants cost money.

Luxury market

And as at the back end of the cabin so at the front end.

Concorde makes its final flight from New York to London at the end of the week and the competition for the luxury part of the market is intensifying.

As in economy, the concentration is as much on non-cost factors as on price.

British Airways' First Class cabin has the feel of a Pall Mall club - lots of wide leather and walnut chairs and very posh stewardesses who, it is said, might remind chief executives of their childhood nannies.

Should these customers wish to dream of the said ladies, they can recline fully as the seats collapse into flat, six-foot-six beds.

The flat bed in First is now the rule for any airline which wants a serious slice of the business market on any of the world's long-haul routes, but particularly between London and JFK.

Increasingly, the competition will also be outside the aircraft, whether it be showers available at terminals or limos to city centres.

Squeezed customers

Just as airlines are squeezed financially so are their customers.

There's been a move down the class system: more people opting for business rather than first and for economy rather than business.

Accordingly, the non-price competition in business class has also got fiercer, with bigger seats reclining much more.

Some of the carriers have had to remove seats in business class to replace them with grander, more comfortable ones.

It's a fine calculation: fewer, more-attractive seats versus more less-attractive ones.

Airlines think that the ability to sleep during a flight is now one of the most important selling points for business customers (given that the price can't fall much more).

Cramped Concorde

So, don't shed too many tears for chief executives denied their day-trip between London and New York and back in time to tuck the kids up in bed.

Concorde, in truth, was cramped.

It was a beautiful creation - but beauty isn't always comfortable.

The flight in future will be longer but sweeter.


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