From the Archives: Concorde, End of an Era

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The following editorial was printed in the Oct. 20, 2003 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, written by the magazine's then Editor-In-Chief, Dave North, who travelled with British Airways on a Concorde farewell flight from London to Dulles on Oct. 14.

End of an Era

The planned cessation of all Concorde flights this week really brings the end to an era. The retirement of the first and only supersonic commercial transport is not a step back for future fast air travel; it instead reveals our failure to take a step forward. While there may be plans sitting in some aircraft manufacturer's dusty bins or computers for the next-generation SST, there does not appear to be any immediacy to introducing a new transport of this category.

It would have been nice to have had a successor for the Concorde in the Mach 2 regime, or better, but that is not likely for years to come. Unfortunately, the Concorde, after 27 years of service, ran out of time.

Started in the early 1960s, as a joint venture between France's Sud-Aviation and the British Aircraft Corp., the aircraft appeared to have a good future. The SST garnered orders and options in June 1963 from Pan American World Airways, BOAC--the predecessor to British Airways--and Air France. A number of other airlines also stood in line.

The Franco-British cooperation was complex, bureaucratic, chaotic and time-consuming. The last factor meant the Concorde did not begin revenue operations until 1976 and had to face the much larger Boeing 747 in competition. That was one contest the Concorde did not win. While 20 Concordes were built, only 14 were to see service with British Airways and Air France. One good result of the joint project was that it laid the foundation for Airbus Industrie, which was to come years later.

Since the flying began, British Airways had amassed 150,000 hr. with its seven Concordes and Air France closer to 105,000 hr. British Airways had some engine failures, tire blowouts and upper and lower rudder structure departures, but no serious accidents. Air France lost a Concorde at Charles de Gaulle Airport in July 2000, grounding both airlines' SST fleets for close to 18 months.

When the two airlines started regular Concorde flights , the carriers found that 80% of their passengers were business travelers and close to 80% were repeats. Of course, there were celebrities who were noted for flying on the SST whenever possible and for awhile, the Concorde made money. The worldwide economic slowdown, health considerations and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks decimated the ranks of business travelers. Also in light of the Enron, WorldCom and the other corporate scandals, business travelers found it more difficult to justify a $6,300 one-way fare to get somewhere in half the normal flighttime. The people who valued time were not buying airline tickets. Either they were not flying or were trying business jets.

Both Air France, whose Concorde operations had not been as robust or as successful as those at British Airways , and the British carrier realized they could no longer afford to operate their Concordes. This realization was fueled by Airbus' request for a guarantee, at least from British Airways, that it would operate its Concordes for a set period of time. Airbus' part of the proposal--to keep providing parts and support--was also going to cost BA $60 million.

Air France ceased its Concorde operations in May; British Airways is operating its final revenue flights to New York and back to London this week. My Paris-based colleague Pierre Sparaco was able to fly on one of the last revenue Air France Concorde flights, and I was given the opportunity to fly in the Concorde from London to Washington's Dulles International Airport on Oct. 14. Both Air France and British Airways Concordes served Dulles beginning in May 1976, and terminated service in the 1990s.

In command of G-BOAG was Capt. Paul Douglas. The flight time from Heathrow to Dulles was 3.7 hr., certainly better than the normal schedule of 7-plus hr. in a conventional transport. The cabin was full of paying passengers and some journalists like myself. There was a festive mood in the cabin, whose passengers included a 70-year-old lady from Virginia who spent $8,400-plus for the business class seat to London and return on the Concorde, as a birthday present to herself. At one point, a Delta Air Lines pilot proposed marriage to his girlfriend, with cheers and clapping from the rest of the passengers.

This was my first and last flight on the Concorde, and I was struck by the fact that the seats were close in size to those in normal economy class with a slightly better seat pitch. Service was what you would expect of a first-class operation , although the flight attendants had to battle socializing passengers for space. Sipping a fine wine at Mach 2.0 while at 58,000 ft. is an experience I am not likely to forget.

British Airways plans to give its Concordes to museums, including possibly the Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York and ironically the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle. The U.S. Congress scuttled the proposed Boeing SST in 1971.

Concorde service proved that time does make a difference. That realization and benefit probably will help generate a new SST. I only hope our children and grandchildren will have the opportunity for supersonic commercial travel.

David M. North

 

Editor-In-Chief

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