This is the second (and final) part of my series on the Concorde, the Western world’s (to date) only supersonic airliner and its curious journey through aviation history. The first part is here.
For all its issues–engineering, commercial and otherwise–the Concorde was a beautiful plane to fly. Pilots and air crews loved it. The exceptionally tranquil ride of the plane, its smooth handling, and its lavish technological layout made the plane a choice assignment for pilots. Because it flew so high, the Concorde had dedicated trans-oceanic flight lanes which were uncrowded with other air traffic. There was also the prestige of flying the most advanced, futuristic and beautiful plane in the skies. In the air travel industry, then (1970s) at the height of its gestalt, this was no small reward in the close-knit and proud community of professional civilian pilots.
Passengers weren’t quite so enamored. Sure, the plane was beautiful and you got to your destination fast, but tickets aboard the Concorde were very expensive and it wasn’t the luxury flight some might have expected for what they paid. The Concorde’s fuselage was very narrow, which meant there were only four seats across, two on either side of the aisle. Headroom was limited and the deep overhead bins where people on subsonic airliners stuff increasingly large bags simply didn’t exist on this plane. A friend and former legal client of mine traveled aboard the Concorde from Britain to the US in 1990, and he told me the experience was disappointing: the plane was cramped, hot, and the service not much better than a traditional plane, but far more expensive. It was his impression that British Airways, by 1990 one of the last two operators of the Concorde, was selling mostly the prestige and reputation of the plane, not really superior service or even the value of faster transportation.
For such a luxurious plane, the Concorde’s cabin was surprisingly small and cramped. Passengers often complained about it.
Big brass on the ground, both in airline corporate structures and airport authorities, also weren’t too happy with the Concorde. Fuel and maintenance costs for the plane were significantly higher than for more traditional subsonic aircraft. Some airports literally banned the Concorde, largely because of noise concerns (sonic booms), and around other airports the Concorde’s flight path had to be specially altered to avoid creating sonic booms over populated areas. Airlines were also somewhat gunshy about adopting the Concorde in the first place. In June 1973, a Tupolev Tu-144, the Soviet’s answer to the Concorde, crashed at the Paris Air Show, killing 14 people. This terrible event, occurring in one of the countries that gave birth to the Concorde and not long before it was scheduled to enter commercial service, couldn’t have come at a worse time. Many airlines had already canceled their orders for the planes, balking at the spiraling prices. After 1973, only a few carriers were still interested. Astonishingly, only 20 Concordes were ever manufactured.
Perhaps the low point of the Concorde’s public history was the plane’s prominent role in a Hollywood disaster film called Concorde…Airport ’79. Easily the worst of the Airport movies popular in the 1970s, the film tanked critically and commercially and is often regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Such silliness is shown in the film as the Concorde doing fighter-jet style acrobatics to evade a heat-seeking missile, and the pilot (George Kennedy) firing a flare out the cockpit window. The film is so bad it has to be seen to be believed. Perhaps this was an omen that the Concorde’s ultimate fate was clouded.
Behold the awfulness of the 1979 film Concorde…Airport ’79. The plane you see here is the exact one that would later crash in Paris 21 years later.
By 1980, the British government was losing millions on the Concorde every year. It was just too expensive to maintain, flights often left half-empty and customers had decidedly mixed feelings about it. The French were also hemorrhaging francs; Air France couldn’t keep its Concorde operations in the black. In 1983, to try to recoup some losses, the British government sold its Concordes to British Airways outright. BA managed to operate them a little more effectively–largely by raising ticket prices. The French still lost money but to them the plane was a matter of national pride, so they kept it operational. Still, Concordes were regular, if somewhat rare, sights in the world’s skies for the next 20 years. Definitely a luxury novelty in the air travel industry, soon only British Airways and Air France were operating any flights at all with the planes.
On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde took off from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, minutes after a subsonic Continental Airlines jet had just gone aloft. Unknown to anyone, the Continental jet dropped a strip of aluminum on the runway. The runway was not inspected before the Concorde’s takeoff, as was standard procedure. When it hit the strip as it accelerated for takeoff, one of the Concorde’s tires blew out. Because Concorde takeoffs were so fast and high-stress, this proved catastrophic. The plane immediately caught on fire and began to disintegrate. The plane crashed into a hotel, killing everyone aboard and four people on the ground. The shocking crash ended the Concorde’s previously perfect safety record. Bizarrely, the Concorde involved in the crash was the selfsame plane used in filming Airport ’79, which is depicted as crashing in the movie.
This disaster was the beginning of the end for the Concorde. The entire fleet was grounded pending investigations. As it turned out, the plane’s safety record wasn’t so perfect after all. The hazards from tires popping on takeoff and landing had been noted as early as 1979. Air France never handled the problem properly. Continental wasn’t blameless either; criminal charges were brought against airline executives for negligence involving the aluminum strip that caused the crash. Air France now owed survivors hefty damages. In another stroke of extremely bad luck, after being grounded more than a year the Concordes were due to begin flying again just after the September 11 attacks in the U.S., which caused a serious slump in air travel across the board.
For nearly 30 years the Concorde was the ultimate status jet. Here are the parents of the future King Charles III disembarking one in 1991.
The Concorde was back in the air, with both Air France and British Airways, in November 2001. But by now the once-futuristic planes were doomed, mostly by economic factors. Technology had actually outstripped their once super-advanced cockpits and systems. So few of the planes had been manufactured and there was so little demand for them that upgrading them would have been a hopeless waste of money. Increased fuel and security costs post-9/11 made the planes even harder to operate. Finally, the Concorde now had a blemished safety record. It was the end of the line. In 2003 both British Airways and Air France announced they were withdrawing their Concordes. Air France’s last commercial Concorde flight took place May 30, 2003; BA’s on October 24.
Concordes now exist as showpieces in various air museums around the world. I saw one at the Intrepid Museum in New York City, many of its interior surfaces still bearing farewell signatures from the last flight crew on the farewell journey. These planes, amazing technologically in their day, have now become dated antiques. Yet the sleek silhouette of the planes is still instantly recognizable today in photos, movies and old video footage. Something about the Concorde still evokes modernity, power, luxury and grace. In an air travel system that is increasingly falling apart–economically, commercially and (in a few unlucky cases) literally–the values that the Concorde embodied simply have no place anymore. As cool as these planes were, we’ll probably never see anything like them again.