Flying into history

This is the last summer to fly supersonic as the Concorde finally goes into retirement in October, and with it the glamour and excitement of cruising over the Atlantic at more than twice the speed of sound.

The announcement was inevitable, but still shocking – the fact that the world’s most recognisable, and expensive, airliner should finally be touching down one last time later this year brought gasps of dismay from the well-heeled natives of London and New York. From Manhattan to Eaton Square, the talk has been about the prospective drudgery of subsonic transatlantic flights, having to mix with the peasants at boarding, (Concorde’s cabin is all first class and has its own exclusive departure lounge), and how to get a ticket for just one last rush of adrenaline at 2,200kph. Like the death of a well-loved family pet that was getting rickety on its legs, everyone knew that after 35 years of flight and more than 25 years of passenger service the Concorde was due for stately retirement, but no-one thought it would happen so suddenly. Air France waved off its Concordes with a Gallic shrug last May, but British Airways is maintaining its commercial services until the end of September, followed by numerous charter services in October that will cover the world.

Just why is one of the most beautiful aircraft in the sky finally being laid to rest in various aviation museums around the world? The answer, I’m afraid, is cold ugly economics. Although British Airways’ Concordes make a tidy profit, after 30 years of flying the aircraft are due for a major investment programme to update many of the systems on board the aircraft. With the first-class travel market still in the doldrums post 9/11 and many major economies teetering on recession, there would seem little hope of the airlines being able to fund this investment and keep the aircraft in profit. Moreover, Airbus spends millions of dollars providing maintenance support for Concorde, money it would rather see spent on its latest projects. The result is the unfortunate demise of an icon that epitomised wealth, adventure and a global optimism that today seems to have evaporated.

Developed in the 1960s, Concorde was conceived at a time when technology was sexy. For Europe, the social and political changes that swept the continent looked to a future that could only be better, brighter and very exciting. In a time when even subsonic air travel was considered only for the wealthy, the idea of supersonic travel was beyond the dreams of all but the very lucky. Initially, both France and Britain were following their own supersonic transport studies, with the French examining the feasibility of a medium-range aircraft, and the British firmly set on the transatlantic range. When the French and British governments decided to share expertise and costs on the project, it was the transatlantic version that prevailed, won over by the British argument that it was in the long-range market that the best prospects for supersonic transport lay. It was only on sector lengths exceeding 2,500 kilometres that the time-saving advantages of supersonic cruise speed began to show through.

Amusingly, despite unprecedented co-operation between the British and French, there was one area of conflict – the spelling of the word ‘Concorde’. Denoting agreement between the two countries, Concorde is actually spelt without the ‘e’ in English and with the ‘e’ in French. Eventually the French spelling became the accepted form, although this may have something to with the fact that concorde is originally a French word, and only entered the English language when the French occupied England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and changed the English language forever – which also explains the huge number of words similar to both English and French! Another British idiosynchrosy which apparently bemused the French was the ready use of first names, a fact underlined by one meeting when a British official suggested that Honorine should be in on the meeting to take the minutes. His French counterpart agreed, but quizzed to whom Honorine was, only to find out that she was his secretary who had worked for him for three years, and whom he had only known as Mademoiselle Dupont.

By 1972, BOAC (now British Airways) and Air France signed contracts for a total of nine Concordes. However, the feasibility of the Concorde project relied heavily on other airlines buying it, primarily the Americans, and when Pan Am and TWA decided to cancel their options, there were worries that it was the beginning of the end for supersonic travel. National pride put it down to the fact that Concorde was a European invention, and it was this that irked the Americans, long used to commercial air supremacy. The reality was probably more to with the fact that both Pan Am and TWA had suffered financially from their wide-body aircraft fleet expansion, and now really did not have a lot of money to throw around. Prospects didn’t look too bleak though, the former Shah of Iran confirmed the purchase of two Concordes for the national airline Iran Air, while China was very interested in purchasing three Concordes. But when the Americans pulled out, other airlines got cold feet and decided to wait on the sidelines.

Before starting its commercial services, Concorde undertook a number of promotional tours to highlight its time-saving speed. This was admirably demonstrated on June 17, 1974 when a promotional trip Concorde took off from Boston en route to Paris, at the very same time that a Boeing 747 left Paris for Boston. The two aircraft crossed when the 747 was 990 kilometres out of Paris and the Concorde was 3,800 kilometres out of Boston. After landing in Paris, the Concorde picked up another load of passengers and set off for Boston, arriving 11 minutes ahead of the lagging 747. Some 500 businessmen from Brazil, USA, West Germany, France and Britain approved the advantages of flying supersonic and an estimated 100,000 people came to see the Concorde at Boston’s international airport, causing the biggest traffic jams ever known there.

January 21, 1976 saw commercial services start with British Airways starting a service to Bahrain and Air France heading for Rio de Janeiro. In May, both airlines began simultaneous services to Washington, DC and in November 1977, after numerous protests about noise from Americans, services finally began to New York. In December that year, a joint service with Singapore Airlines and British Airways linked London and Singapore, with a refuelling stop in Bahrain or Dubai. Political issues and lack of profitability saw the Concorde routes eventually reduced to the New York-Paris run for Air France, and New York and Barbados for British Airways by 2000.

Whatever the economic and political bullying at the time, Concorde has always been a huge hit with those lucky enough to fly on it. For the average air traveller who flies regularly on business, a trip of three hours is just about the limit before boredom begins to set in. After takeoff, one can enjoy a drink, have a flick through the newspapers, have a leisurely lunch and coffee – and then wonder what to do. On Concorde, you will be starting your descent by this stage, and it is this that hits home when doing the transatlantic run.

Comments that Concorde is a bit cramped in its cabins and a little noisy on takeoff pale into insignificance when the time-saving factor is realised. Sir David Frost, a seasoned Concorde traveller, put it succinctly saying that, "It spoils you for flying completely. The speed, the look, everything about it reeks of exclusivity and luxury. Flying a jumbo jet afterwards just seems dull, lugubrious and very, very boring." Flying from London to New York in just three and half hours, compared to the normal seven-and-half hour crawl, has made the concept of actually commuting between the two financial hubs a reality for a limited number of Concorde passengers.

The expense of a Concorde ticket (around $6,000 for round-trip flight from London to New York) has drawn accusations that it is an elitist form of travel for the privileged few and not worth the investment – so what’s wrong with that? The politics of envy from those too poor to pay for a ticket miss out on one big point: Concorde was created to fill a marketing niche. There is a demand for rapid transport between two of the world’s largest financial capitals, and top companies are quite willing to pay up full price to enable their executives to get there and back in the fastest time possible in order for crucial business to be executed. Many in the world do not realise just how heavy traffic is between these two cities, with a flight from London leaving for New York approximately every 20 minutes of the day operated by anything up to 10 different airlines.

Concorde was never designed for mass transport, although it was hoped that the launch of supersonic air travel would act as a catalyst that could develop the industry to eventually produce supersonic aircraft available to the masses. Concorde was always there for those ready to pay a big premium for speed. If you wanted a bargain ticket, then there was always a subsonic flight which hopefully had a few good inflight movies to quash the boredom factor.

Concorde survived the doom mongers and for British Airways at least, went on to become not only a profitable product, but also a flagship icon to the airline that raised it above the competition. 35 years on, people still turn to look up in the sky and see the sleek, dart-like shape of Concorde roaring overhead to some exotic locale, and for the UK’s national lottery winners, a trip on Concorde is apparently one of the first purchases to be made. Moreover, there is a generation that has grown up with Concorde remaining the aspirational trip of a lifetime. When British Airways announced the retirement of Concorde and offered a promotional airfare of just £1,999 ($3,150), all available seats were sold out within hours as people across the world rushed to fulfill at least one of life’s dreams. However, British Airways has laid plans during October to allow as many people as possible to have the chance to fly supersonic. During the month Concorde will be conducting a farewell people’s tour of the UK, with 500 seats to be won by lottery, with entry costing just £5 ($8). The 500 winners will enjoy a two-hour supersonic flight around the Bay of Biscay, with the money raised going into a charitable trust for children.

Still, there is more than a twinge of sadness at the loss of Concorde. It is not just national prestige for the British and French that their creation, and one never surpassed, should have to be retired. Also, it is the fact that there is nothing to replace it. If supersonic aviation had developed, as it was expected, then the demise of Concorde would have been merely poignant, and not nostalgic as it is now. It is an interesting reversal of progress that we are witnessing the fastest form of commercial transport disappear from the skies and be left with air journey times that have not improved since the 1960s. The latest jumbos might be able to fly longer distances, but they are still mass people transporters and lack the physical beauty and clean line of the Concorde. One common remark about the Concorde is that it is a stunning aircraft to look at in a purely artistic sense, no-one can say that about today’s Boeings and Airbuses.

For now, there is still a chance to savour the frisson of excitement that walking up to the Concorde check-in desks at London’s Heathrow airport gives, under the curious and envious looks of other passengers. The darling of celebrities and captains of industry, Concorde has been whisking practically every head of state, Hollywood star and supermodel over the Atlantic at 2,200kph (1,350mph), and at an altitude of 20,000 metres (60,000 feet) for the past 25 years. It has been mooted that supersonic transport might not return for another 20 years, but at least until October, you can still live out just one fantasy, sipping a glass of Champagne as you break the sound barrier and gazing at the curve of the Earth silently pass below you.