What it was really like to fly on Concorde

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Earlier this year, a Norwegian Air Boeing 787 Dreamliner hitched a ride on a powerful jet stream and flew from New York to London in a record-setting five hours and 13 minutes, landing almost an hour ahead of schedule. Record-setting, perhaps, but for a subsonic airliner.

In 1976 -- over 40 years ago -- elite passengers were crossing the Atlantic in under three and a half hours, flying at twice the speed of sound in the Anglo-French Concorde.

Only 20 of the sleek, delta-winged SSTs were built, and just 14 were delivered to two airlines -- seven each to Air France and British Airways.

With superlative service and cuisine, exclusive airport lounges and stratospherically high airfares, Concorde passengers flew far above other flights, and cruised faster than fighter jets to their destinations.

But what was it really like to rub shoulders with the rich and famous on a Concorde flight? CNN Travel asked some former passengers.

"The flight attendants loved being on it; the passengers loved being on it," says CNN's Richard Quest, who flew Concorde five times. "You were aware of being part of a very small group of people that were privileged enough to be on Concorde.

"Concorde was extremely small, only about 100 seats. It had more like office chairs, bucket seats, and very small windows. It was noisy, extremely noisy, but I challenge anybody not to have a smile from ear to ear when they got on it."

With an interior fuselage width of about eight and a half feet (2.63 meters), Concorde's cabin was just wider than that of today's Bombardier Regional Jet. The SST had a single aisle, with a two-two seating configuration.

"The actual layout of the plane was in two sections. There was a front section, then a middle lavatory, and then a rear section," explains Quest.

"The two sections were identical -- not like one was First Class and one was Business. But there was always a status symbol to being in the front section."

While Concorde had its regulars, including international businessman Fred Finn -- who flew a record-setting 718 times -- any number of novice passengers could be on board for their one-and-only supersonic experience.

Like Su Marshall, a globe-trotting Canadian who was treated to an Air France flight from New York to Paris by her then-boyfriend, "who had more money than Midas."

In the Concorde lounge at JFK, where the "Air France staff oozed élan," Marshall chatted with an elegant French woman, and admitted that it was her first flight on the SST.

"She was a Concorde regular, and whispered candidly to me, 'You better go to the washroom now. It is impossible to pee once in the air. Too small,'" said Su.

"For a girl used to flying steerage, once through the doors of the sleek, tiny, cigar tube into the body of Concorde, I knew I had entered into the rarified air of gods and kings. But dang, things were small and cramped. Leather, polish and flutes of never-ending Champagne, but really squished.

"But hey, three and a half hours to Paris? I sucked it up," chuckles Marshall.

In the 1980s, Richard Ford was on the team at Landor Associates charged with updating Concorde's interior for British Airways.

"As a part of the detailed technical work it was important to learn more about the flying experience. I was privileged to be offered the chance to make a return flight to New York from London in one day!" says Ford.

"Despite its small size it felt more like an executive jet than a commercial airliner, with thrilling performance," he adds.

"The quality and style of food service was exceptional, and I left with a signed certificate as evidence of my flight."

To meet with an important client some years later, Ford flew Concorde one more time, but as a fare-paying passenger.

"I felt more strongly that I had entered a private club. It was a brief glimpse into a life I had not known, polite, considerate, and beautifully detailed. It was impossible to not feel spoiled, and valued," says Ford.

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