“This is a story that I find fascinating; it is the height of combining luxury, adventure, and work.
Enjoy it like I did” – Toyin W. Oke
Fred Finn is the world’s most travelled man. Since his first flight across the Atlantic in 1958, Fred has flown north of 15 million miles and has visited 150 different countries. In 1983, he was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records for having flown more air miles than any other passenger in history.
The Concorde, which flew from 1976 to 2003, was the world’s first and only commercial supersonic aircraft, and flying on it was a one-of-a-kind experience that remains unsurpassed to this day. Fred has flown on the Concorde a record-breaking 718 times, including the first and final flights.
Recently, we had the tremendous pleasure of speaking with him to learn more about his travels over the years, his experiences flying on the Concorde, and some of the valuable insights he has learned from over half a century of air travel.
Q: AS THE PERSON WHO’S FLOWN ON THE CONCORDE MORE TIMES THAN ANYONE ELSE, WHAT PART OF THE EXPERIENCE DID YOU ENJOY MOST?
A: My favorite part, was all of it. The Concorde was the most amazing and most beautiful airplane ever built, and it still is. When I first travelled on it, I thought it was amazing. I flew out of Dulles in Washington DC. At Washington, the plane didn’t come to the gate - they didn’t have gates. Instead, you went into a boarding lounge, and the lounge goes down, drives down to the plane, and comes up again. And when I boarded the plane, I saw this sleek, beautiful, gorgeous airplane, and it looked out of this world. It was very long and very slim - of course, it had to be in order to go that fast.
The Concorde is very different from a normal aircraft, because you’re going to be flying faster than the speed of a rifle bullet, 23 miles a minute, and you’re going to be flying at 60,000 feet. There’s nothing close to this. The takeoff is a lot quicker than a subsonic airplane, at about 250 miles per hour. When we used to leave from New York, we would cruise out to the end of Long Island, almost to Boston, and then it goes supersonic. They would put the reheats on to give it the ability to fly supersonic, and they would keep it on until it got to Mach 1.71. Once the Concorde is traveling faster than the speed of sound, it creates a loud noise called a sonic boom.
The Concorde would fly at 1,350 miles an hour, and they would serve champagne, Dom Perignon, to 100 people with lunch or dinner. The average time it took to cross the Atlantic on the Concorde was 3.5 hours. For comparison, my first flight across the Atlantic took 18 hours and four stops in London, Prestwick, Keflavik, and Bangor, Maine before landing in Idlewild, now called Kennedy Airport (JFK). On the Concorde, the fastest crossing we ever did took 2 hours and 59 minutes. The normal crossing from London to New York is about 6 hours one way and 8 hours the other, depending on the jet stream.
The Concorde is the only aircraft in the world where you can leave London in the winter on a cold winter’s night, and it’d be dark, and it starts to get light again when you go west. The Concorde goes faster than the turning of the earth, so you fly west and the sun comes up. And you land in New York in sunshine on the same day, an hour before you took off, so it’s still light. It’s the only aircraft that could do that, and it’s quite amazing. They used to sell my regular seat (9A) sometimes, so they’d ask me to sit in the cockpit. I’d put my headset on and tune in, and I actually spoke to the aircraft coming in the other way.
Once, this aircraft was closing in, an SR1 Blackbird. It was the fastest airplane, flying at almost Mach 3, and they couldn’t believe that there was another aircraft at their height. It was them in the Blackbird with all these masks on and all this heavy gear, and there’s the Concorde flying by with 100 people, saying cheers as they drink their champagne. No other aircraft could do that, so that’s the experience of Concorde. You would also have the opportunity to meet people that you would never, hardly meet otherwise.
Q: WHO ARE SOME OF THE FAMOUS CELEBRITIES THAT YOU’VE TRAVELED WITH ON THE CONCORDE?
A: I’ve flown with countless celebrities and famous persons over the years. Once you’re on that Concorde, everybody’s equal. If you try to reach the heads of film studios on the ground, you’d have walls and walls of people to get through. Try and say hello to Paul McCartney on the ground, and you’d have a job. But once you get on that airplane, it’s “Hello, how are you doing?”
I flew many times with Paul McCartney - he used to draw happy faces and hand them out to everybody. I flew with The Who, Led Zeppelin, I flew with heads of businesses. I flew with Ricky Nelson, Joan Collins, Joan Rivers. I flew with Superwoman, and we took her to the pub and had a pint afterwards.
Do you remember John Denver? I was on a flight with him on Christmas Day from Paris to New York, and there were three of us, so he got out his guitar and played “Country Roads” for us, and that was one of my favorite songs.
I met the guy that managed the Beatles and the guy that managed the Bee Gees. I flew with Bruce Springsteen, got along very well with him, and he used to get off the plane and ask the BA guy “How many flights has Fred done now?” This is what we used to do. Muhammad Ali, I flew with, Floyd Patterson. Golfers in the Ryder Cup from England, they used to fly on Concorde, so I met the golfers. It was quite amazing. I flew with Presidents, Presidents’ wives, and ex-Presidents.
Q: WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES IN THE AIR?
A: Of course, you always remember your first flight. I used to live near an airfield, and as a kid riding on my bike, I would pester these guys to give me a flight. They took me into their airplane one day and turned me upside down, and all I had on was a seatbelt, 4,000 feet in the air. I flew my first commercial flight in 1958 from an airport in London, and we landed in Scotland, Iceland, Maine, and then Idlewild (now Kennedy), and I remember those flights clearly like it was yesterday.
One time, I did three crossings on the Concorde in a day, which was the most that anyone has done. It’s impossible to do now. A company that I worked for at the time wanted a contract signed, and they wanted it done that day, so that’s what I did. And you couldn’t have done it otherwise. I flew from London to New York and landed two hours before the New York-London flight, so I caught that one and then I got into London in time before coming back to catch the Concorde back to New York.
On the Concorde, I used to take bottles of cognac and champagne for the crew, and they used to do the same for me. It was like a very small family on the Concorde - everyone knew each other that flew on the aircraft, and I knew all the crew. I used to make cocktails for the passengers when they were busy. In many cases, I became a part of the crew.
Every flight on the Concorde was amazing.
I had a love affair with this aircraft for 27 years.
It was love at first flight - it’s unbelievable.
Q: AS SOMEONE WHO’S FLOWN MORE THAN HIS FAIR SHARE OVER THE YEARS, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON JET LAG?
A: I don’t believe in jet lag at all - there is no such thing as jet lag.
It’s about dehydration, stress, and being tired. If you take an average flight, 11 hours from San Francisco to London, for example, it’s not actually 11 hours.
You’ve got to check in 2 hours ahead, you have to get through security, and then you’ve got to wait for your flight. You’re already tired, and you’ve got to get on your flight inside a steel aluminum tube, and the air for the cabin is coming through the engine, so it’s dry. So you get exhausted.
Once you get to your destination, you’ve got to go through immigration and go find your hotel or get back home, and so you’ve had a very long day. People do not spray water on their bare skin when flying, which is the best thing to do because of dehydration from the dry air. Every 20 or 30 minutes when you’re flying, you should close your eyes for a few minutes to give your eyes some time to moisturize.
People tell me that I talk a lot of nonsense, but you know what? When you fly on Concorde, you go through the same time changes, in 3 and a half hours, and there was no jet lag at all. I used to fly from London to New York, go to work all day, and sometimes fly back overnight. Recently, I did the inaugural Boeing Dreamliner flight from London to Atlanta with Richard Branson. This was a beautiful airplane, and the cabin pressure was lower. It’s not hot - it’s actually quite humid, so you don’t get as tired, because your skin is not dry now. Jet lag is really about dehydration, tiredness, and stress. You can feel it when your eyes are dry and heavy, so I take a little water spray with me and it makes an awful lot of difference. But I’ve never had jet lag in my life, and I’ve flown across the Atlantic over 2000 times.
Q: TELL ME ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH RICHARD BRANSON AND YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH THE CREATION OF VIRGIN ATLANTIC AIRWAYS.
A: Well, I came off the Concorde one night in New York, and I caught the helicopter over to Newark. This guy came up to me in Newark and said “You’re Fred Finn”, and I said “Yes.”
He said “Richard Branson would like to have a lunch with you”.
I said “Well, that’s fine, I’ll be back in London in 3 to 4 days’ time”.
He said “It’s tomorrow”.
I said “When did you know about this?”
He said “We knew this morning that you’d be coming here this evening”.
I said “Well, I was in London 4 hours ago, I just came on Concorde, and if you had told me in London, I would have stayed there”.
He said “Well, we’ve just got this flight, we’ve got a seat on it for you”, so instead of going home, I got on another flight and flew back to London.
I met Richard in London on a little boat in the river, a houseboat. I spent 3 hours with him talking about what he wanted to do with this airline (Virgin Atlantic) and what I could do to help him, so I did.
I helped him with my idea about the limousine and the Upper Class.
At that time, companies were cutting back on first class travel.
Upper Class would do a lot more than many first class seats did - we provided a limousine for each guest, put a masseuse onboard, put a bar onboard, and it was a fun way to fly.
The passengers loved it, and the bean counters loved it as well, since they were paying for business class rather than a first class ticket. Everybody was happy.
I did many things with Richard. I used to fly with the Red Arrows, which is our Royal Air Force Acrobatic Team. I took Richard with me to fly with the Red Arrows. I took him and his wife and 2 children to Kenya on one of my safaris.
I got him his first mobile phone. When the first mobile phone company started here, it was called Cellnet, and I could give phones out to my friends, because they wanted famous people, celebrities using their phones. So I gave him a phone and every week, his assistant would call up and say that he’s lost his phone.
Do you remember the first phones? They were like a house brick back then. He kept losing it or he’d call me on it.
The chairman of the company and I had very similar numbers, and Richard would misdial every time.
I played cricket with him in America along with Pamela Anderson and the Los Angeles Lakers in a place in Santa Monica.
Recently, I went on the inaugural Dreamliner flight to Atlanta last year with him, and we had a band onboard, the first ever band onboard streaming back to earth. So yes, I’ve gotten to know Richard quite well over the years, and we still keep in touch regularly.
Q: HAVING FLOWN FOR ALMOST 60 YEARS, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGES YOU’VE SEEN IN AIR TRAVEL OVER THAT TIME PERIOD?
A: The biggest change of all is the jet engine. First off, in England, you would not have Kenyan coffee beans, bananas, tomatoes from Spain, and people wouldn’t be able to enjoy the variety of foods that they do nowadays.
The jet engine is the biggest development in the world, and it’s not just about travel - take horse racing, for example - they ship horses across the world, which they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Passenger travel, freight, DHL couriers, UPS, all of these things exist and have been enhanced because of the jet engine.
These days, planes have also gotten bigger, and they’ve got flat seats, beds, and private apartments. I was on Etihad (The Residence), where you got a private suite, a little lounge, and you could walk to your very own shower and bathroom.
They’ve got a butler there, and he’ll make sure that all your clothes are pressed and that you’re well taken care of.
As for something that’s gone down over the years, when I started flying, I used to fly a lot with Pan American. In this day, it was the best carrier in the world.
They were the first with the 707 and 747, and the 747 had an upstairs with a restaurant. There were 2 tables for 2 and 2 tables for 4, and they used to come to your seat and give you the menu. They used to say “Mr. Finn, your table’s ready”, and I head upstairs, and they’d have roast beef, roast lamb, fresh salmon, whatever you want, really.
It was cooked onboard, and they carved it at your table like they do in a restaurant. So on an 8hour trip, it was sitting upstairs - starters, main course, dessert, cheese, wines, and cognac.
Those days, you could have a cigarette or a cigar afterwards if you wanted to. It was a very enjoyable thing and it took 4 hours out of your trip. It was like being on a private airplane because there were only twelve people up there.
The older days of flying provided an unbelievably good value. Lounges have changed a lot and have become a commercial proposition nowadays. In 1974, United came out with the 100,000 Mile Club, and I had already done a million.
I was the first million-miler on United. The lounges didn’t have signs advertising their location. When you checked in, they said “Sir, door down there, it’s open”, and there was your bar and everything, and the cabin service director of the flight would come to the lounge, offer to take my briefcase, and escort me to the plane. This doesn’t happen anymore.
A lot of this exclusivity came to an end when the lounges started opening up for everyone who would pay for a membership. It’s become a very commercialized situation.
When deregulation came in America, it was good in some ways.
You had all the airlines that were part of the system, like Pan American, Braniff - a lot of them are gone now, but after deregulation, Braniff decided to increase their number of destinations significantly and upgrade their aircraft. Harding Lawrence ran the airline, and he was very good at all that.
They used to serve the best breakfast of any airline between Dallas and Chicago.
I lived in Nashville for a while and got used to American Airlines, Braniff, and Piedmont, which became a part of US Air and later American. But they just got too big.
All the old airlines had union contracts.
To work with Pan American as a flight attendant, you had to speak 2 languages and be a university graduate, and after deregulation, the standards became much lower for national carriers. Airlines like Pan American and Eastern Airlines couldn’t afford to keep up, they couldn’t afford new aircraft, and they couldn’t afford anything because running the airline prior to deregulation cost them too much, and people weren’t going to come to work for half the salary or a quarter of the salary.
A lot of the low cost carriers came in and the legacy carriers today are not what they used to be. At the moment, none of the American carriers fly the A380.
They can claim foul play by airlines like Emirates, but at the end of the day, look at the profits that they have made by providing limousine service, amenity kits, flat beds, suites that close up, fast track, and all the other luxuries they provide. It’s the same price you would pay as if you flew on United. The Gulf carriers (Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad) are brilliant, as are Singapore Airlines and Oman Air.
Q: WHAT ARE THE MOST INTERESTING PLACES THAT YOU’VE TRAVELED TO?
A: Over the years, I’ve been to 150 countries.
One of my favorites would be Kenya. I like safari, I lived in Kenya for a while, and it’s one of the most unique countries on Earth. I belong to a club called the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, which has nothing to do with safari but was founded by the film star William Holden and his wife, Stefanie Powers.
Their home was 6,000 feet up, and it was warm during the day, cool at night, and there were no mosquitoes or anything like that. You can drive by the star-light, you don’t need lights.
There’s a mountain called Mt. Kenya, and it’s 17,500 feet high sitting on the equator. There’s snow on it, and it’s one of the most amazing sights.
40 minutes from there, you’re at Nakuru.
Now, Lake Nakuru, when you fly around it, it looks like it’s got pink sludge around it. In fact, it’s pink flamingos, millions of them. Another 40 minutes from there is the Maasai Mara National Preserve, which joins the Serengeti as the largest free range safari in the world. I drove across the Maasai Mara and Serengeti, and it took 6 days.
They have the migration of the wildebeest, and you can see it from the moon. From space, you can see there’s these 2 million animals moving for months to graze.
Another place I like is the Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Each one is different, but they have the best beaches on God’s earth. The islands are granitic, so you’ve got all these granitic shapes, and one of the islands, Praslin, has the coco de mer, the biggest coconut in the world. The seeds can weigh up to 10 kilos. They’ve also got the Seychelles tree frog, which is green, and of course, amazing culture.
I like Japan, I like England, and I love Ukraine.
Ukraine is a very diverse country. It’s the biggest country in Europe. It makes fantastic wine, and it’s got the most beautiful women on Earth. Ukraine’s background is very much different from that of Russia.
It came into the Ottoman Empire, Austro Hungarian Empire, and the Silk Road from way back when. It’s very beautiful there, and that’s why Ukrainian women are so beautiful.
And then, of course, there’s the little country of Georgia. It’s got the highest mountain in Europe there. Georgia’s the oldest winemaking country in the world, and it’s capital, Tbilisi, is very historic. They’ve been making wine there for four, five thousand years, and they’re still making it in these big claypots that they’ve put into the ground where the winery is. They put the grapes into the pots and seal them with beeswax. Then, they bury it into the earth to make the wine. The grapes there are called saperavi - these are black the whole way through, and when you get this wine, it’s actually almost black. The flavor, you’ve never tasted anything like it.
The food is renowned, and using the leftover grapes, they make a distilled drink called chacha - it’s very potent. The people are very friendly, the culture is very good, the dancing is a thing to behold, and then you can drive down to the other city, Batumi, which is like Monaco. It’s on the Black Sea, absolutely splendid, and it’s got all the big hotels there. It’s an amazing place.
I love America, of course. When I was living in America, the company that I worked for told me there’s an Oldsmobile Cutlass out there.
They put 400 dollars a week into my bank account, handed me a credit card, and asked me to drive around to every major city in the United States and show their product to every major food distributor in the country. I drove from New York to every city in the United States.
It took me 17 weeks to complete, and I had the time of my life, absolute time of my life. It was unbelievable.
Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU ARE WORKING ON THESE DAYS?
A: This year is the 40th anniversary of the Concorde’s first flight. The London Mint is issuing a silver and gold medal to commemorate this anniversary, and I’ve been working with them on writing the presentation book.
The silver medal will contain a piece of Concorde metal, so everybody will be able to own a part of the Concorde.
The gold medal will have the Concorde flat with the Queen’s head on the back, and my presentation book will be launched with them.
People are loving that.
I had a guy call me and he said, “You know what, I’ve just done a trip on Concorde.” I said, “How did you do that?”, and he said “I just read what you wrote, it’s the best thing, and it takes you through the whole experience.” Later this year in October, I’ll be a speaker at a function in London to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Concorde, and there’s going to be 500 people coming to this dinner. My own book, Tail Finn, will be launched at that event in October.
I’ve also got a travel app called Quicket, and it does things that no other apps or travel products can do.
Now what does Quicket do? If I want to book a ticket, I’ll tap on the Quicket icon on my phone, which has a little jet engine and a tail on it, shaped like the letter “Q”.
The logo winds up like an actual jet, and when I search for a flight, it’s already got today’s date and the closest airport filled out.
So if I’m in San Francisco, SFO would come up. I’ll tell it that I want to go to London tomorrow, and in 40 seconds, it will tell me every flight to London tomorrow with the price for each flight.
I can then choose one, book it, and I’ve got the ticket in my hand.
Now what can I do with the app once I’ve got that ticket? It can tell me when to check in, it’ll tell me the departing date, whether the flight is delayed, show me the way in and out the airport, and it’ll show me every hotel around at the press of a button.
It’s also got the best seat configuration of everyone - I’ve got 900 different airplanes.
The seats are color coded to help you figure out where the best seats are, so you’ll know where to sit on every airplane.
You can search by airline or search for whatever aircraft you’re looking for.
If you haven’t purchased a ticket with Quicket, you can take your boarding pass, scan it in, and use all of our services, including the seat configuration and maps showing you the way out of the airport.
It’s quicket.to, and it works on whatever you’ve got: iPhone, Android, Windows, and more.
- John Ma
- Lounge Buddy