Aboard the Air France Concorde
`FORGET the foie gras stories, John. Tell us about the Concorde,'' a friend remarked recently. I couldn't believe it. Having just returned from a whirlwind, week-long ``Food Lover's Guide to France'' tour, I thought everyone was as anxious to hear about the six pounds I had gained as I was to explain them - ounce by delectable ounce. The Concorde, I surmised, was a non-story.
After all, it's been around for over a decade. Certainly everyone had heard enough about it.
``I know it's big, but how big, exactly?'' a neighbor queried.
``How fast does it go?'' asked another friend. ``Really faster than the speed of sound?''
``Twice as fast,'' I said.
Someone even went so far as to ask what the movie was, and wanted to know ``What does it feel like?''
And, of course, everyone wanted to know exactly how long it took to fly from Kennedy Airport in New York to Paris.
Here's how it went.
The Air France Concorde lounge at Kennedy Airport is easy to find. Just tail any affluent-looking couple wearing ropes of gold chain and toting tons of Louis Vuitton luggage - no problem.
The lounge itself is laid out like an art gallery. Large modern tapestries, brown leather chairs, signed etchings, and wall-to-wall carpeting.
Drinks are gratis, and served with p^at'e and smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres. Everything from here to France is, in fact, gratis once you pass through the lounge door.
Most disappointing is that you can't see the plane from the lounge. In fact you never get to see it at all - from the outside. No way to get pictures to send Aunt Mildred of you climbing aboard the delta-winged dart.
As you board, you get your first Concorde gift. In this case, a tan, cloth, faux-leather soft attach'e portfolio stuffed with Concorde goodies: stationery, postcards, pen, and assorted memorabilia.
The first surprise is how small the interior is. Although the fuselage is only about 16 feet shorter than a 747, the Concorde is about the width of a Greyhound bus, and carries only 100 very well-dressed passengers. Seating is two and two on either side of the aisle.
Seats are snug, but comfortable. And everyone flies first class, or what is referred to as ``Concorde Class.''
Stewardesses swept about in elegant gray Nina Ricci dresses. ``They used to be silk, but now they're blended polyester,'' one confided as she quickly got us tucked into our soft ``tulip'' and ``cardinal'' red seats.
Takeoff is the one time you feel anything extraordinary. A surge of acceleration presses you into your plush seat, as the plane speeds across the runway at 220 mph and begins climbing at a dramatic rate.
``Expected flight time to Paris is three hours, 20 minutes,'' announced our captain, as the attendants passed around chocolate-covered almonds, mints, and drinks.
A large, digital speedometer mounted on the front cabin ticks off the speed as we soar toward the heavens.
Hitting Mach 1 - the speed of sound - went unnoticed. No, Aunt Alice, you don't hear the ``boom.'' The sound barrier is broken only over water or desert, so as not to disturb mere Earthlings.
In fact, there's nothing to disturb our dinner of hors d'oeuvres, salad, tenderloin steak (medium rare, of course) with truffles, artichokes, and fresh haricots verts.
Oh, and the best part - 50 grams of fresh, pearly gray Iranian caviar. And the very best part - the gentleman sitting next to me hated the stuff. Bingo!
Dinner, eaten in the usual cramped airline style, with stainless steel flatware especially designed for the Concorde, was prize-time again.
Small shaving kits in the same tasteful tan pattern were passed around. Each with its own tooth-brush/razor combo, note pad, eye shades, and slippers in case you want to take a stroll. But, alas, where to go?
Not even time to check out the washrooms!
Supersonic speed, (Mach 2 or 1,350 mph) is reached at 50,000 feet, as we sped toward a final altitude of 60,000 feet.
At this stratospheric height you see the sky turn deep blue - almost purple, and you can actually see the curvature of the earth's surface, as you peek through the tiny 4-by-7-inch windows. Here the flight is totally calm, as no meteorological disturbances are possible at this altitude.
Descent, like most of the flight, is uneventful. But flight time is remarkable. New York to France in three hours, 17 minutes. Jet-lag is simply a physical impossibility.
``This is my 19th Concorde flight,'' remarked one obviously well-heeled gentleman, adding, ``It's the only way to go.''
``Oh, you travel on business?'' I asked.
``No, personal,'' he said.
By the time we disembarked to a chorus of ``au revoir'' from the crew, our luggage was waiting.
Exit Concorde; welcome aboard the Foie Gras Express....
If you go
To book a flight on the Concorde, contact your travel agent, Air France, or British Airways.
Air France, in addition to a daily flight from New York to Paris, offers special trips on the Concorde. One, a 12-day trip to Egypt and Kenya leaving New York on Sept. 10, is $12,999, all inclusive. Another, a 18-day trip to China and Tibet leaving Aug. 12, is $14,999 from New York, $14,699 from Oakland, Calif., and Honolulu, all inclusive.