The seats are too narrow, the ceiling is too low, and sometimes you have to bark to be heard over the whine of the engines. The price of a round-trip ticket would almost buy you a new Renault. But there is no grander, giddier way to get to Paris than on the Concorde, the supersonic white elephant that loses Air France $2.5 million a year.
Last November, Air France cut back to one flight a day from JFK to Charles de Gaulle and eliminated service between Washington and Paris. British Airways, which claims it makes a modest operating profit on the Concorde, flies the white needle-nosed beauty twice daily from New York to London and three times a week from Washington. Racing at twice the speed of sound, or 1,340 m.p.h., the Concorde gets you to Paris in 3 hours, 30 minutes, less than half the flying time of a subsonic jumbo, or about 30 hours faster than it took Charles Augustus Lindbergh to cover the distance on May 20-21, 1927. Put another way, the $1,980 one-way ticket means you spend $565 an hour to get to the City of Light - only a little less than the lowest round-trip fare this winter.
If you're prepared to wade through a tangle of red tape, all three of the major US-France carriers - Air France, Pan Am, and TWA - have $629 bargains until May 15 on conventional jets. This so-called Vacances fare requires a stay of 14 to 60 days and full purchase of the ticket at the time you make your reservation. There is also a $629 weekend rate which requires you to sandwich the entire French visit between a Thursday and a Sunday, designed no doubt to fill some of those customarily empty weekend seats.
While the Pan Am and TWA jumbos don't come close to matching the Concorde's speed, both claim they provide better service and more comfort in their substantially larger cabins. (Pan Am flies L1011s, TWA uses mostly 747s.) A first-class ticket on all three major lines (Air France flies 747s in addition to the Concorde) costs $1,644 one way, $336 less than a supersonic ride.
Business flyers are keeping the Concorde aloft. They love the working time it saves them in both directions, particularly westbound. Strange as it sounds, one can leave Paris at 11 a.m. and, accounting for the time difference, arrive in New York 2 hours and 15 minutes earlier at 8:45 a.m. Many travelers fly supersonic Paris-New York and go subsonic the other way, figuring the working day is lost anyway by leaving at 1 p.m. and getting to Paris at 10:45 that night.
My preference is exactly the opposite. Given a rich uncle or an unlimited expense account I would do as I did one precious day last fall and hop the Concorde eastbound. This puts you in Paris for a late-night stroll the same day, whereas all the conventional New York-Paris flights are overnight affairs requiring the disorienting juxtaposition of a late dinner and an early breakfast aloft.
Whatever one's reason for taking the Concorde, the plane is still, after eight years in business, a joyful plaything even for its most frequent customers. There is an added giddiness up there at 60,000 feet (jumbos fly at 30 ,000) knowing you are not only part of a select circle but also a witness to history. The governments of England and France built only 16 planes at a cost of and they have perhaps 20 years left - there will be no more Concordes.
One Thursday morning last fall, when Air France still had a morning Concorde flight to Paris, we waited in a takeoff lineup at JFK with some mere 747s and DC 10s while a stewardess moved up and down the narrow aisle handing the women passengers single long-stemmed roses.
Concorde's problems were apparent from the beginning. It carries only 100 passengers in two small compartments with two-abreast seating on either side of the aisle - a modest payload compared to the jumbos that hold 370 and up. Of course, the point of this hurtling and exclusive ride is that it gets you there so fast you don't have time to be cramped or bored. Indeed there is time only to eat.
On a peach-colored tablecloth, the hostess laid out four hot canapes, a portion of fresh goose liver, and a main course that for some reason was different than the one listed on the smartly designed menu.
The plane was perhaps a third full, and most of the passengers were in the front compartment, where veteran flyers have found the engine noise to be less. I had scarcely finished eating and exchanging cards with the man beside me, a Swiss bank official with a sideline in biblical history, when I felt the plane dip and saw the machometer flash below 2.00. Then we were being tossed forward ever so gently with the force of the alighting plane on the de Gaulle tarmac. The last thing you hear is ''Mind your head, sir,'' a reminder of the Concorde's low exit clearance.
Flying home from Paris, I went first-class on a Pan Am L1011. The rolling hors d'oeuvres cart offered all the usual tidbits plus blini, heaped with sour cream and hollowed-out oranges stuffed with crabmeat and sea urchins. There was time, of course, for a movie, which I watched lying back on a stretch-out seat as though reclining in my own bedroom. All at a poky 600 miles an hour.