In 1995 I had made a lot of money contracting and decided to take myself off and do some travelling round America, I had friends over there so there were plenty of places to stay and lots to see.
I booked or 6 flights with American Airlines, 1 flight to Chicago, 4 internal flights and 1 flight home, I was going to be there for about 6 weeks, mainly in Chicago, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia, quite a bit of travelling but worth it to see friends and some more of America.
All in all my trip was successful, except for the flights, there were delays on all of them, the minimum being 3 hours. When I got back to Chicago to fly to Manchester I hadn’t had a shower in 2 days, hadn’t shaved in 4 or 5 days and my clothes were creased beyond redemption, I wasn’t in the mood for any crap or hassle, I just wanted to get home, my holiday was over.
I was waiting to board along with the rest of the passengers when we were advised there would be a 36 hour (yes thirty six hour) delay in the flight due to a whole raft of balls-ups and probable incompetence on someone’s part.. Arse.
Well American being Americans were straight off to the customer service desk to threaten the staff there “with opening a whole can of whoop-ass on them” – yes, I actually heard someone say that – people were getting all loud and shouty and threatening to sue the airline, their business partners and their grandparent, it was all a bit messy. I really didn’t want to spend another 36 hours in Chicago so it was time for me to visit the customer service desk and start lying.
The girl on the desk was pretty with the worst Chicago accent, she sounded worse than some of the pretty Liverpool girls I’ve worked with in the past, great looking but shut the fuck up. Anyway, I spoke calmly and politely to the girl behind the desk, I had no reason not to, it wasn’t her fault the flight was delayed.. but it was enough of a reason to tell her that I really needed to get back to the UK as my mother had died. Lies don’t get much bigger than that.
The girl behind the counter said something which I struggled to understand due to either her having a mouthful of nails or her accent, I think she was expressing sympathy, she checked my ticket and told me to take a seat, she would see what she could do for me..
Not holding up much hope I sat and waited, got my complimentary sandwich and cold beverage the airline was handing out, I have no idea why they are allowed to call the bit of plastic filling cheese, it clearly isn’t. After about an hour the young lady with the accent came up to me, explained that I had a flight to JFK airport, a switch to a British Airways flight to Heathrow and connection to Manchester, whilst not quite what I had anticipated it was better than being in Chicago for another 35 hours.
I asked when the flight to JFK was.. “..in 45 minutes, you better get a move on” I expressed my thanks and gratitude and made haste to the boarding gate.
During the flight to JFK I had a look at the tickets I not had in my somewhat sweaty hand, after checking twice I saw that the daft bint at the desk had got things wrong and by my calculations would miss my connecting flight from Heathrow to Manchester by about 4 hours. No biggy, all I needed was a shuttle flight; they were about £55 back then. Arse.
I landed at JFK, made my way to the British Airways queue which was long and meandering, and started the shuffle towards the check in desk, having had queuing issues previously and being told I was in the wrong queue I spoke to the guy next to me.
“Hi, are you queuing for flight BA002?”
“Noooo, I can’t afford that”
“I can’t afford that, that’s the Concorde flight”
“Erm, oh, thank you”
There was a BA staff member close by, I caught his attention and asked
“Hi, am I in the correct queue for this flight” proffering my ticket
“No sir, that’s the Concorde flight, you need to go down there, through the automatic doors, turn left and check-in is on the right hand side”
“Ok, thank you”
Aware I had attracted some attention I grinned, excused myself from the queue and went down there, through the automatic doors, turned left and saw the check-in on the right hand side.
I strolled up said good morning and presented my ticket and passport.
“Good morning Mr Robbins, did you have a good flight from Chicago”
“Yes.. Thank you”
“ I see your baggage is checked all the way through to Manchester, if you would like to proceed that was sir your hand baggage will be checked. Have a good flight sir”
I walked up a slight incline where another woman was standing next to an x-ray machine.
“Good morning Mr Robbins, did you have a good flight from Chicago?”
“Yes thank you.”
My bag passed through and I was on my way.
The time of the connecting flight from Heathrow to Manchester suddenly made sense.
Now, the Concorde departure lounge is a pretty sweet place to be early in the morning, it smells nice, it’s full of very quiet people, there are no football shirts, whining children, drunken idiots, fat women emptying the place of food and drink into their unfeasibly large handbags laughing very loudly, no, the Concorde lounge is a tranquil place where you can relax, eat pretty much anything you can think of, have a coffee, champagne or cocktail, breathe clean air and get pretty fucking excited about the flight ahead.
After a bite to eat, a refreshing fruit juice and an excellent coffee it was time to get aboard.
I was pretty sure that someone was about to jump out from somewhere and shout Gotcha or some such crap, or turn around and say sorry there’s been a mistake, you’re not worthy.. Seriously, a free upgrade to Concorde? Meh, it just doesn’t happen. Or does it..
Concorde cabin staff are slightly more mature and a lot less orange than other flights I’ve had around the world, and they appeared to me somewhat more sincere, and properly polite, not just going through the motions, faking sincerity is quite an art.
As you enter the main cabin of Concorde, you realise how small it is, yet it’s very airy and bright, I was seated about half way down the plane with plenty of wing underneath me, I was struck by two things, how comfortable those leather chairs were and how small the gold tinted windows were.
The flight wasn’t full and I had no one next to me, this was a good thing as I’m pretty sure I smelt of excitement and had a manic grin on my face, they were closing up and we were off.
As we pulled away from the gate I was pretty much pissing myself with anticipation and excitement, I know a lot of people have flown on Concorde, but it was then and still is despite it no longer being in service a very privileged thing to do. A line from A Fish Called Wanda sprang to mind.. “You lucky lucky bastard”
As we were trundling off to the end of the runway the pilot’s voice came over the speakers “Good morning to you, my name is Captain blahblah, I’m sorry to have to tell you that we have a technical problem and we are returning to the gate”
Not even interpretive dance could even begin to describe how totally and utterly crest fallen I was. This was the biggest, most massive blow of my entire life. Yes I had been on Concorde, and yes it has moved, but it’s hardly the same thing. I felt sick.
We got back to the gate and sat there for about 10 or 15 minutes in silence waiting to be taken off the plane, but then the captain came back on “Ok, sorry for the delay folks, there was a problem with a brake sensor but we’re good to go now thank you for your patience”
As we pulled away from the gate my elation returned, this was it, this was the moment I had dreamed about since first seeing Concorde fly over Winsor Castle in the early 70s. I had arrived at my destiny.
We trundled out to the end of the runway, normally on a plane they throttle up, hold it on the brake and then it gets all rattley and shaky for the next 60 seconds until you’re airborne. There wasn’t really a sense of that on this flight, no drama (yet) just smooth acceleration and then takeoff.
Something work noting around now is the fact that Concorde doesn’t run late, Concorde runs on time, and there are 15 minutes to make up.
The captain came back on and advised that once we were clear of land and several miles out he was going to kick in the afterburners 2 by 2 and we would feel a small nudge in our backs followed by another one five seconds later. Ok, afterburners are things that planes from Top Gun have, they make you accelerate faster, it’s a bit like a turbo of super charger on a car.
I wouldn’t so much say it was a nudge as a feeling of disappearing into the back of my seat, just as I caught my breath from the first ones the second ones kicked in, we were now in Porsche Turbo acceleration territory, the numbers on the altimeter and Mach meter displays on the bulkhead were both climbing steadily, this was singularly the best moment of my life. Shallow? Oh I hope so.
The flight is very smooth, we were cruising at 55,000 feet and maxed out at Mach 2.04 but stuck around mach 2.01 which is round about 1320mph. After takeoff, drinks were served which was a very pleasant champagne, shortly afterwards food was served which was Maine lobster caught and shipped in that morning, this was served on a china plate, with a metal knife and fork and of course drinks were served in crystal glass.
All the passengers on my flight were dressed in business suits, kept themselves to themselves and got on with the morning task of reading broadsheets and the Financial Times, dressed in less than clean jeans, t-shirt and scruffy trainers I was the yang to their ying, although at no point was anyone sniffy towards me which was nice.
The whole flight was very smooth, the sky was a beautiful indigo colour and the curvature of the earth very pronounced, there is no in-flight movie, just pleasant and relaxing restful silence.
As we approached Heathrow the deceleration was fairly rapid, but the transition from supersonic to subsonic is seamless, and there’s none of that circling waiting for a landing slot, we were straight in there, touch down was smooth and that was that. I had my complimentary Concorde folder with notepad, envelopes, and postcards in and my sterling silver photo frame, it had been a pretty amazing experience, but it wasn’t quite over just yet.
As I was getting off the aircraft a very well presented man who was waiting just outside the cabin door said “excuse me, Mister Robbins?”… 2 things went through my mind, how much trouble was I in and was it worth doing a runner..?
“Yes I am”
“We’re a bit tight for your connecting flight to Manchester sir, please will you come with me?”
“Can I take your bag for you sir?”
“No. Thank you, I’m ok with it”
I was escorted down some stairs where there was a vehicle parked, he opened the door, let me get in, jumped in the driver’s seat and we sped off across the tar to the BA domestic flights terminal, got parked up and he escorted me upstairs, fast tracked me through immigration and passport control and took me to the gate and to the front of the queue for my flight to Manchester which was boarding. It was the best customer service I’ve ever had, from start to finish the last several hours had been amazing and truly wonderful and one for which I was immeasurably grateful.
Imagine my surprise when I got to off at Manchester and my bags had gone missing. All of them. They hadn’t made the flight from Chicago to JFK. Did I care? Not really. As it was they were delivered to me by taxi the following day.