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Thu, Aug 23, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Concordes working to woo back business' Mad Hatters

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

"There are people who start their week in New York, fly overnight to London and work a full day there, fly back to be in New York for dinner Tuesday night, work all day Wednesday in New York and then fly back over and work all day Thursday in London, and then fly back that night to spend Friday in New York," said Kelly Reed, a marketing executive for British Airways in New York.

On my old block, we used to have a word for such people: lunatics. Reed prefers a more deferential term, "Masters of the Universe," to describe these hardest of the hard-core business travelers, the people who are so astonishingly busy or invincibly driven that they will pay as much as US$11,000 (though the price isn't that much of a factor, Reed says) to ride the supersonic Concorde and shave a few hours off the regular flying time between London and New York.

After months of certification tests and safety and in-cabin modifications after a crash last summer that killed 113 people, the fleet of 12 Concordes, operated competitively by British Air and Air France, is ready to fly again, both airlines say.

Both airlines tentatively plan shakedown flights between New York and Paris on the weekend of Sept. 22. Airline officials, politicians and aviation-trade reporters are among those who will be on board. Then, in late September, British Airway plans to re-introduce regular Concorde service. Air France plans to resume its regular Concorde flights when the airline switches to its winter schedules in late October.

The Concorde service was introduced with great hoopla 1976, and in the years afterward both British Airways and Air France have shown considerable marketing skills with their needle-nosed airplanes. Routinely over the years, according to officials of both airlines, Concordes were flown to airports in the US just for publicity to win over a wider customer base.

"In many cities, a Concorde landing at the airport is a guaranteed spot on the six o'clock news," a British Airways executive told me gleefully in London a few months ago. "In fact, people drive out to airports just to see it land or take off. You can't buy publicity like that."

Speed and luxury were twin pillars of Concorde marketing. "For years, you heard almost as much about the great food as you did about the supersonic speed," one executive said.

But in the interim since last year's crash near Paris, long-time Concorde customers and potential customers have become accustomed to newly upgraded levels of service and comfort on regular airlines' international flights, with spacious premium cabins and lavish meals available in flight or, for those who plan to sleep aloft on those new flat-bed seats, in VIP lounges before departure.

And other Concorde customers have clearly drifted to private business jets, some of which fly at near supersonic speeds. So how do you win the customers away from those sleeper seats and spacious first-class cabins they've become accustomed to, and back to the relatively cramped confines of a Concorde?

Speed. That's what Concorde is selling most as it takes back to the skies.

"Concorde is all about speed and convenience," said David Noyes, British Airway's executive vice president for sales and marketing for North America. Noyes spent much of this summer commuting between London and New York, where he was moving his family to take up his new duties. Though he traveled in comfort, sleeping peacefully over the Atlantic, he said he really saw personally what the Concorde customers were paying for.

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