Jet Set Redux: Concorde Comeback to Return Snobbery to the Skies

The term jet set used to mean something. For two decades following the 1952 introduction of passenger jet service, it described a privileged sliver of the traveling public seen as superior to the unwashed masses because of their ability to jet off on frivolous trips to exotic locales once reachable only by road, rail, or steamship. But by the mid-1970’s, airline deregulation and cheap oil made jet travel available to everyone. Just like that, air-kissing poodle walkers on their way to the Côte d’Azur had to share the departure lounge with women in flowered housecoats and guys in sauce-stained wife beaters. The indignation at the interlopers was both righteous and palpable.

The homogeneity didn’t last long. The Concorde began service in 1976, shuttling members of the Lucky Sperm Club between financial capitals such as Paris, Tokyo, and New York, and ritzy playgrounds like Barbados at supersonic speeds. For a while it seemed like harmony was restored to the rich-guy world, as long as enough of them could afford ticket prices that routinely eclipsed the five-figure threshold. The jet set would live on for another 25 years. But simple economics—and a horrific crash in 2000 that had nothing to do with the Concorde’s airworthiness—brought an end to the party. In an age of relentless technological advancement, where everything is supposed get exponentially faster, all the time, passenger air travel would actually slow down.

Hope returned to Richistan this week with news that a team of French and British engineers is working to restart the engines on a former Air France Concorde, with the goal of getting it flying once again. The resumption of supersonic passenger air travel is still years away, but the announcement underscores the belief that—as brainy as our science guys are, and as rich as our rich guys are—it’s messed up that air speeds for commercial travel haven’t notably increased since the Brady Bunch era.

With the return of the Concorde (or the launch of its inevitable successor) will come the return of genuine envy—and corresponding feelings of smug superiority—in the airport. True, for now you can give the stink-eye to the investment banker staggering out of the private airport club, or think unkind thoughts as you wheel your roll-a-way down the aisle past preening first classers who already have cocktails and hot nuts, but you’re all arriving at your destination at the same time. Private jets aren’t much faster, and their separate terminals means there’s no audience of poor people to covet the perks.

Only a supersonic passenger plane will restore a class system to air travel based on something actually worth envying: speed. The rich will get there first, everyone else will arrive second, and we all know that “second place” is a polite way to say “first loser.” But this isn’t just good news for the wealthy. If the shame of slow flying becomes too much to bear, you’ve got a bright, shiny, delta-winged goal to chase as it disappears into the horizon, filled with beautiful people on their way to a party you can only imagine.