Shortly after 4 pm on October 24, 2003, British Airways Flight 02 from New York landed at London Heathrow Airport. It was the aircraft’s last Atlantic crossing and marked the end of supersonic commercial air travel.
For 27 years, the Concorde transported passengers at speeds of Mach 2, or more than 2,100 kilometers per hour. With its dart-shaped wings, aerodynamic shape and iconic drooping nose, it represented the latest in aeronautical technology and ambition.
Looking back at the BBC report on that last commercial flight 20 years ago, it’s easy to see why Concorde’s time was up. The interior is tight and cramped, the seats almost resemble those on a budget airline, barely reclined. Entertainment was restricted to a few music channels and the bathrooms were so small it was almost impossible to use them.
That last passenger list is also instructive. A mix of aging celebrities and gray-haired business types in suits, they were the plane’s customer base, the only ones with a bank balance big enough or an expensive account big enough to pay for the $8,000 one-way ticket.
In truth, two decades later, Concorde seems more like a blast from the past than the future of air travel.
Despite the glamor of traveling at twice the speed of sound and reaching New York from London in less than three and a half hours, the plane had a troubled history and never met the expectations of the French and British governments who conceived it as a joint project.
Orders for up to 350 Concordes from 100 airlines, placed while it was still under construction, declined as the cost of operation and oil prices soared in the 1980s.
In the end, when the plane entered commercial service in January 1976, only 14 were delivered: seven each for the state airlines Air France and BOAC, now British Airways.
This was despite boosting sales globally. In 1974, the Concorde landed at what is now Al Bateen Executive Airport, ostensibly as part of warm-weather testing, but also to attract potential buyers. Then he went to Dubai.
Concerns about noise and pollution – and possibly more than a little protectionism – blocked the introduction of lucrative American routes until 1977. For its first routes, BOAC traveled to Bahrain, while Air France headed to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil via Dakar in Senegal.
Prevented from flying over land due to its sonic boom, the aircraft still managed to turn a profit in the 1980s on the New York route, earning British Airways between £30 and £50 million ($36.5 million to $ 60.8 million) per year. . It helped that both British and French airlines had been given the Concorde effectively for free.
Although a commercial failure as a concept, the Concorde was the pinnacle of travel in the 1980s and 1990s. It was put into service for the 1985 Live Aid concerts, ferrying rock star Phil Collins from London to New York. so he could perform at both events. In 1996, it was painted blue to promote Pepsi’s new color scheme and landed in Dubai on a tour of Europe and the Middle East.
Four years later came the event that many believe put an end to the Concorde era. On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed on takeoff in Paris, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew members, as well as four people on the ground.
An investigation found that debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport had shredded a tire, the fragments of which punctured a fuel tank and two engines, causing a fire and a disastrous loss of power.
The 13 surviving Concordes remained grounded until December 2001 while safety modifications costing millions were carried out. By then, the drop in passenger numbers resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon had ended any future hope for Concorde.
When Airbus announced that it could no longer provide maintenance, Air France announced that it would withdraw the aircraft from service in 2003. The surviving Concordes were distributed to museums on their final flights.
Almost within a few months, plans for a successor to the Concorde were announced. But 20 years later, none of them have transported passengers, or even flown. Despite its glamor and speed, the business case for supersonic flight is still weak and the development costs enormous, compounded by the presentation of aviation emissions as a major factor in climate change.
The case of Aerion, financed by Texas billionaire Robert Bass, is instructive. First announced in 2004, its SBJ (Supersonic Business Jet) went through several modifications until arriving in 2021 at the SBJ AS3, an aircraft capable of flying four times the speed of sound.
But behind the scenes investors were fleeing. Airbus, Lockheed and General Electric withdrew. Aerion had nearly 100 potential orders and was building a factory in Florida, but the company collapsed in May 2021, leaving only artists’ impressions.
Several other projects are, in theory, still working. Russia, whose experience with the Tupolev Tu-144, nicknamed “Concordski,” suffered a disastrous accident at the 1973 Paris Air Show, was reported to be considering a second attempt, possibly with investment from the Middle East.
China could also enter the market, with a rumored hypersonic plane that could reach five times the speed of sound or 5,633 km/h.
The most likely successor, however, has a distinctly retro feel. supersonic booman American company, hopes to fly a one-third scale demonstration aircraft within weeks.
The proposed full-size model will fly at twice the speed of conventional Boeing and Airbus planes, slightly slower than Concorde, and offer business class pricing for 65 to 80 passengers.
Due to enter service at the end of the decade, the Boom Overture It has several airlines interested enough to take out purchase options, including United with 50, and Japan.
Despite being considerably quieter than its predecessor and more fuel efficient, the Overture will still have sonic boom issues that, like the Concorde, will reduce its supersonic use on overwater routes. The company also promises it will be net zero and predicts it will eventually become the standard for long-haul travel.
From the outside, however, its sleek delta wings and needle-shaped nose resemble the plane that first flew in the 1960s. When it comes to supersonic passenger travel, it looks like a case of back to the future. Although this time we hope that with movies on board and wifi.
Updated: October 24, 2023 at 4:15 am