Concorde: boom time over

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Air France and British Airways will this year permanently halt service of the Franco-British supersonic passenger plane Concorde. We trace its history and ask what future remains for supersonic travel.

Concorde will stop flying at the end of October after more than quarter of a century as a transatlantic shuttle for the rich and privileged.

The aircraft has had a turbulent economic history ever since its launch, casting doubt on whether there will ever be another commercial supersonic passenger plane given increased demand for cheap, environmentally friendly travel.


The important dates in the history of Concorde


Nov 29: French and British governments sign an agreement to jointly build a supersonic airliner

March 2: First flight of Concorde from Toulouse, France Oct 1: Concorde's first supersonic flight

May 25: Concorde makes first intercontinental flight from Toulouse, France to Dakar, Senegal

June 3: Concorde's "Soviet sister" the Tupolev Tu-144 crashes during an airshow outside Paris, killing 14 people. Oct 7: So-called "father of Concorde" Lucien Servanty dies, aged 64, without ever having flown in his brainchild.

January 21: First commercial flight, from Paris, France to Rio, Brazil.

July 25: Air France Concorde crashes on take off from Charles de Gaulle airport, killing all 109 aboard and four on the ground. Air France, and later British Airways, ground flights.

November 7: Concorde resumes commercial flights after fatal crash, following the implementation of new safety measures.

November 27: Part of the rudder of a British Airways Concorde falls off during a transatlantic flight between Londe and New York. No-one is hurt.

April 10: British Airways and Air France announce that they will permanently ground Concorde by October 31.

For British Airways and Air France, the two Concorde operators who announced they would ground their fleets for good by the end of October, the aircraft has never been a huge money-spinner during its 27 years of service.

This is despite even the good times of the 1980s and 1990s, when investment bankers, pop stars and wealthy jet-setters were willing to pay dearly for a ticket to the last word in luxury air travel.

The plane also proved deeply costly for the British and French governments, who developed Concorde in the mid-1960s, notwithstanding its widely-considered status as one of the great technological achievements of the 20th century.

Concorde's dubious profitability was underlined by the fact that only BA and Air France — at the time both state-run — opted to buy the hugely expensive aircraft.

In all, 13 Concorde aircraft went into commercial service, seven to BA and six to Air France, and neither airline has given a full breakdown of the costs and revenue from their Concorde fleets.

Air France said it would avert an operating loss generated by Concorde of between EUR 30 and EUR 50 million per year with the withdrawl of its fleet from service.

"Certainly during the peak times across the North Atlantic when there was an awful lot of traffic flow amongst investment bankers and when world economies were in better shape, the impression at least was that Concorde was reasonably profitable," said Tim Coombs, consultant at Aviation Economics.

But the gas-guzzling jet entered commercial service in 1976, at the height of the fuel crisis of the time.

Periods of economic recession, the 1991 Gulf War and the crash of an Air France Concorde on take from Charles de Gaulle airport in July 2000 in which 113 people were killed further clipped the wings of the supersonic pioneer.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist skyjackings in the United States dealt yet another blow to confidence in air travel, especially premium trans-Atlantic flights, the mainstay of Concorde's business.

"Concorde generally performs reasonably well but never with great profitability, (even) in the most buoyant economic circumstances," said BNP Paribas analyst Nick van den Brul."And now of course we have a severe downturn in the European economy, and also in the US, and that means it's hardly profitable," he added.

But profit has never been the whole story behind Concorde, which was a symbol of prestige for France and Britain and a formidable marketing weapon for its two operators.

"It was, and still is, a great thing to have in terms of publicity," said Coombs.

Whether the "old lady of the sky" will have any descendants is even less certain.

Increased demand for cheap, environmentally friendly travel was underscored by US giant Boeing's decision in December to scrap plans to develop its near-supersonic Sonic Cruiser in favour of a more conventional fuel-efficient middle market jet.

Concorde flies much higher than normal jets and the nitrogen oxide emitted from its engines breaks down ozone.

Coombs said that if producers could produce a supersonic plane that met economic and environmental needs then a descendant to Concorde might just emerge. "I think as technology moves on, then I wouldn't be surprised, but not over the next 10 or 15 or 20 years," said Coombs.

"Time is also a factor for everybody, and you're willing to pay a bit of a premium to take three hours to get to New York rather than six."

See also: Concorde: phoenix or lame duck? , Concorde: the last witness , The horror of Concorde’s crash

April 2003


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