It’s the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend in London. The streets are lined with Union Jacks. Jets soar low in the sky bound for City and Heathrow, as tourists trundle outside Big Ben in the midday sun.
We’re on foot along Westminster Bridge to Marriott County Hall for lunch with Fred Finn, the world’s original ‘super commuter’ – the man who has travelled more for business and pleasure than anyone else on the planet. The Guinness Book of World Records cites Finn officially as the World's Most-Travelled Person, with 15 million career miles (24 million kilometres) to his name, many spent aboard the aviation industry’s most cherished and fantasised commercial jet of all time: Concorde.
“I told them to get us a window seat,” says Finn, greeting us with a handshake at Gillray’s Restaurant and Bar, his Guinness World Book and Concorde pins glinting proudly on his tie and lapel.
“I haven’t stopped since last week,” he says, holding court with the restaurant staff, who know him by name. “Six trains in one day on Wednesday – Lancaster, Manchester City, Man airport. I’m always busy. I seem to be in demand.”
Finn is a man who can talk, and has much to talk about after six decades in motion. Though his professional days as an international lawyer, marketer and licenser are in the past, his role as an inadvertent Concorde ambassador, and an ambassador for business travel itself – jetting around the world giving talks on his elite air experiences and a life on the road – is just as active today as it ever has been.
“It feels just like yesterday,” he says, glass of red in hand. “It was the most sensational thing in the world.”
A feat of engineering unsurpassed in commercial aviation still two decades after its final voyage, Concorde’s fleet of fourteen aircraft – seven, respectively, to British Airways and Air France – was, for those lucky enough to experience it, a sleek, supersonic, and highly exclusive experience in an era when even the most basic commercial air travel held a gravitas unknown in today’s culture of speedy check-ins and budget carriers. Concorde epitomised the art, beauty, and purposeful thrill of air travel.
“It was so ahead of its time,” says Finn. “When you went up to it, the shape of it, it was a piece of artwork. Especially when it was flying.”
Concorde made the world smaller. And it helped people get things done so much faster than they could otherwise. You could get from London Heathrow to JFK in under three hours with the right tailwind, cutting at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2, or 2,179 km/h; quicker than a rifle bullet).
As well as the most travelled, Finn also holds the world record for the most ever flights on Concorde – a paltry 718 times between 1976 and 2003, three of which occurred in a single day.
“I used to fly about 11 months a year, licensing people to manufacture their own products,” says Finn. “I’d liaise with national ministers; I worked for a time for the US Government, lived in D.C and Nashville. You could fly from London, then go to Nairobi the same evening. A lot of lawyers liked the long flights, but I was actually getting work done rather than sitting on a plane all day.
Sure, a return flight on Concorde was expensive, but it saved so much time. In Finn’s day, there was no internet, no email; if a contract had to be signed, or a deal had to be pushed through, you had to be there in the flesh. Concorde helped bridge distances that technology was yet to, creating speedier face to face opportunities and subsequent progress in an analogue world.
“In the winter you’d leave here at 7pm, in the dark, but you go faster than the rotation of the earth, so the sun would be coming up in the west, and you'd land in daylight, an hour before you took off – a 700-mile vista, basically nearly black. You could see the curvature of the earth. There was a buzz about it you couldn’t get from anything else. When you’d taxi, you’d always get that whiff of aviation fuel, just as they put the air-conditioners on.”
Seat 9A on the transatlantic Speedbird eventually became ‘Fred’s seat’, the BA crew customarily stashing a half bottle of Dom Perignon beneath it before take off (Cuban cigars too, if headed for the States). But most of the time Finn rode up front.
“I’d sit up in the flight deck chatting with the pilots on the headset. Talked to a plane coming the other way once: 46 miles per minute, just like I’m talking to you. Another girl I saw recently who got married said ‘you used to help me on the flight making everyone’s cocktails’. These are the little stories.”
Connection and Camaraderie
Finn’s work took him all over the planet – D.C to Nairobi, London to Nashville, Australia, the Seychelles: 150 nations, 2000 times across the Atlantic and beyond. Yet the many of the ‘little stories’ he arches back to during our lunch focus less on his professional activities as much as the daily interactions he had with those he met en route.
“It was a Club,” Finn says. “You’d see the regular faces on each flight. Because you were there, you were expected to be there – ‘Fred how’re ya gettin’ on”, mimicking his best Bruce Springsteen drawl – ‘How many flights now?Seeya next time’. People you would never get to see on the ground – these were the sort of people you used to meet.”
Eleven months each calendar year abroad is a tough slog in anyone’s book; it’s clear that that human connection – the face to face element, not merely the electrifying rush of each Concorde take off – was what kept the fuel in his tank.
Travel for work opened up Finn’s world, creating unique doorways to meet people he never would have encountered in ‘ordinary’ life. Through Concorde, many happened to be rich and famous: Muhammad Ali, Paul McCartney, Joan Rivers (“she’s a character”), Richard Branson, and Johnny Cash, to cite a few – “many many times with John,” Finn recalls with softness. “We used to go out to dinner; the last time, with his wife, June Carter. ‘Can I come down and sit next to y’all?’Fred, why don’t I see ya anymore?Would you write something to John?’ I had a beautiful bottle of Glen Cantenet, so I wrote ‘Hi JC, sending best wishes, nice talking to June, later realising I gave a beautiful bottle of wine to a reformed alcoholic.”
Yet more than community, Finn found surrogate family in his travels. He knew every Concorde crew member by name, and was a regular at dinners and crew parties. For him, travel for work really meant meeting up and spending quality time with friends – relationships built and cultivated over the course of decades. Conversely, to the eclectic mix of global high flyers, entertainers and Concorde staff he rubbed shoulders with, Finn was the famous one: Concorde royalty in seat 9A.
Ultimately, as people who love to travel for work understand, the kinetic nature of transiting distances inevitably opens doors, drawing new relationships and situations towards us that would never happen if we stayed in our immediate surroundings. These encounters change our worlds, and carry us to our futures. Whether the faces we meet along the way happen to be former Beatles, country music legends, or business folk headed for a lunch meeting, it’s the act of choosing to live in motion – and the chance meetings we get along the way – that keep us, and clearly kept Finn, coming back for more.
Before and After the ‘Queen of the Skies’
It wasn’t Concorde alone that drove Finn’s life in motion. Flight and travel was a magnet from early on: a youngster from Kent who preferred cricket to the classroom, and rode his bicycle each weekend to neighbouring Lympne, a Battle of Britain airfield, to try and score a ride in the air.
“I used to pester everybody. Eventually a guy said ‘alright we’ll take you up,” saddling the young Finn in a Tiger Moth, before plunging him upside down at 800 feet up. “They thought that was hilarious,” he grins.
His first transatlantic stint at age 18 was on a Douglas DC-4 propeller jet: Hampshire to the U.S Base in Prestwick, then over to Idlewild (early JFK) via Bangor Maine – a very different era of intercontinental travel.
It wasn’t just in the skies that Finn clocked up his miles either. After moving to the U.S in the early 70s, he hit the road with vigour, making the most of any opportunity to move, meet new faces, and experience things he’d never seen before.
“I went to Canada first, then the company transferred me to New York. ‘There’s your car, there’s 400 a week in your account, there’s your credit card’. 17 weeks it took me, and I’d been through every major city in the United States.”
Taking the good with the bad, Finn’s flights before and after Concorde also dished up some interesting memories, including countless hair-raising encounters that few others would care to endure.
“I’ve been attempted hijacked, had a bomb on board, an attempted kidnapping, landed with the wheels up. But I’m still here. People want to fly with me; I’m the safest guy in the world to fly with,” he smiles.
Destination and Style
As well as a travel speaker and inadvertent Concorde ambassador, in recent years Finn has rebranded himself as a go-to authority for travel tips, advice and know-how, writing for publications on what to pack, where to move, and how to travel well.
By taxi, train, jet or otherwise, the 81-year-old remains a man in motion, continuing to embody a legacy way of doing things in a world of digital alternatives: dress sharp, make good on your promises, meet in the middle – face to face where possible – and connect with each other. And have a good time while doing it.
These days, he’ll usually only travel to places he loves. Kenya always gets a return visit, a place he’s been over 600 times. The Seychelles too: “The best beaches on earth, and they’ve got 900 of them. Do ten days in Kenya, and then a week in the Seychelles. Robinson Crusoe style.” he recommends.
Like all those who’ve encountered Finn throughout his six decades in transit, we revel in the hours absorbing his tales, the Thames flowing outside, the clink and sizzle of the restaurant around us. Anecdotes flow with each course, as more and more staff members stop by to shake his hand and have a chat.
“If you treat people right, and they’re good people, they treat you back right,” he says.
We take a black cab with Finn after lunch and part at Waterloo Station, buzzing with the Friday evening post-work rush. He sees us off on a train back to Gatwick, the city smouldering in Jubilee heat, our imaginations lit by the endless tales of a man who lived, and continues to live, kinetically, ever in motion; the beauty of travel – the connections made when you make the effort to meet in the middle – effortlessly demonstrated in the here and now.
About Cam Hassard - Writer
Australian-born writer, editor, journalist and musician, Cam Hassard has spent the better part of the past two decades in Émigré-mode living and travelling abroad, and currently calls Berlin home.