SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Is man not meant to fly?

FIRST STRIKE

ANIL DHARKER

Is man not meant to fly?

SO the Concorde has finally flown for the last time. In our throw-away age, we have got used to getting rid of things (so much so that we discard people too without much remorse), yet the Concorde's flight from cutting-edge technology into history has no parallel at all.

Consider the bare facts of obsolescence. The focus of technology is to make things which are sleeker, faster, smaller ... In other words, "better". The ubiquitous mobile phone is a prime example of how quickly new inventions improve on the "old" ("old" being defined as last month's model). Place my first Nokia next to my present one, and you see light years of difference: the old one is bulky and clumsy, a Ford Model T standing next to a Thunderbird. All it did was to enable me to make calls and send SMS messages. The new one can organise my life, give me reminders, store hundreds of messages and phone numbers, have individual tunes and photo Ids for my callers, take pictures, send e-mail ... Light years, I said, but there's only a couple of years between them.

The same goes for cars. They are aerodynamic, more comfortable, they go faster on less fuel and are low on emissions. Trains in Japan and France go at unbelievable speeds, yet coaches and tracks are so made that you don't feel a thing. TV sets can now be hung like paintings on walls, small radios capture the world with incredible clarity, music systems get miniaturised yet pack a wallop ... In other words, things get better and better.

So it should be for our air travel, and so it is, with today's jets so much more comfortable, quicker, larger and more cost efficient than older models. Just compare the first Boeing 707s with today's Boeing 747-Bs.

The Concorde should have been part of this expected progression in air travel, with slow turbo-props giving way to faster jets which, in turn, gave way to supersonic jets. Yet the odd thing is that the Concorde was introduced as long ago as 1976 and no other supersonic plane came up to compete with it in all these years. And 27 years is more than a few lifetimes in the fiercely competitive (and innovative) world of aviation. Now, in 2003, when the Concorde flies for the last time, there is no supersonic plane to replace it. Which is what makes the passing away unique: we are actually going back from supersonic to subsonic flights. Mankind, uncharacteristically, has actually chosen not to go faster.

Is that because we don't want to go faster? That would be so if air travel even remotely resembled its ads: smiling air-hostesses, gourmet food with fine wines, passengers reclining with blissful expressions on their faces ... It's nothing like that, of course. In cattle class we are sheep or, worse, sardines. Even in the "full bed" service of first class, you are only more comfortable than the lesser classes: your "full bed" being only an approximation of the real thing at home or in any hotel room. There's no way we would willingly want to prolong our flying experience. If Boeing or Airbus came out tomorrow with planes which did Chennai to London in three hours, the planes would be chock-a-block, assuming of course, the price was right.

That was always the crux of the problem. The Concorde's fares were absurdly high, a minimum of $10,000 for a round-trip between Europe and New York. And four-and-a-half lakh rupees is a bit steep just to save three-and-a-half hours of flying time. So Concorde became, not a functional, time-saving device, but a one-upmanship thing, a way for the rich to show-off a bit.

Thus, famously, Rod Stewart flew his hair-stylist from London in a Concorde, just before a New York concert. For pop stars, especially, the Concorde was de rigeur, with regulars including Paul McCartney, Jeanne Moreau, Brigette Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Madonna (she was put into the Second Cabin, a fate apparently worse than death).

Other passengers included film stars like Roger Moore or sportsmen like Mike Tyson, who the airline and other passengers, understandably gave a wide berth in every manner of speaking. The Super Rich included doctors too, as the crew happily found out on one flight when a passenger had a heart-attack mid-flight. "Is there a cardiologist in the house?" they asked. It turned out there were 17 of them. Between them, they saved a life.

Yes, the Concorde remained an oddity. It looked like a sleek insect, but it charged too much, was not comfortable enough, and ultimately, proved not to be very safe. Why didn't it have other competitors? After all, one innovation from a plane maker, makes the other go into overdrive to match it. Or go one better.

But the Concorde never had a rival. Boeing abandoned an 18-month-old programme to build a 225-seater "sonic cruiser" that would fly just below the speed of sound; the company found it more profitable to upgrade its subsonic fleet. (The Concorde, incidentally carried only 92 people.) Does this mean that we cannot fly faster? Can it be possible that human beings have acknowledged that at least in one area of our world, we have reached a limit, beyond which we are not prepared to go, in spite of knowing that that limit is not a real one, that for nearly 30 years, it was being crossed twice daily?

Is it possible that we have some mental block when it comes to flying? What could that block be? Could it stem from a primordial belief that man isn't meant to fly?

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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