what-happened-to-concorde

What happened to Concorde?

  • Concorde was a supersonic passenger airliner jointly developed and manufactured by Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). After more than three decades in the sky, the entire fleet was retired in 2003.
  • Concorde was not a commercially viable aircraft. The presence of a sonic boom limited its routes to those occurring over the open ocean. It was also heavy on fuel which made Air France and British Airways vulnerable to price hikes.
  • Concorde’s fate was sealed by a fatal crash in 2000 and the September 11 terrorist attacks the following year. A collapse in the first-class market and consumer avoidance of air travel exposed the aircraft’s lack of commercial viability.

Background

Concorde was a supersonic passenger airliner jointly developed and manufactured by Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC). Twenty aircraft were built, with British Airways and Air France the only two commercial companies to utilize them. 

The Concorde was an extremely fast way to travel. It was one of only two supersonic jets ever produced, carrying 100 passengers and 9 crew at a cruising speed of 1,350 miles per hour. As a result, Concorde’s flagship New York to London route could be made with tailwinds in under three hours.

After its first commercial flight in 1976, all Concorde aircraft were retired in 2003. Many can now be found on public display in museums around the world.

So what happened to Concorde? How did an aircraft promising to be the future of air travel be reduced to a museum piece?

Commercial viability

The Concorde produced a loud sonic boom when it eclipsed the speed of the sound. At ground level, the boom sounded like an explosion and had the potential to shatter glass.

This meant the Concorde could only be flown over water where it wouldn’t disturb people on the ground. Some countries flat out banned the aircraft from flying in their air space. In other countries, residents living near airports frequently complained about the noise.

Where a route could not avoid flying over land, the Concorde had to fly at slower speeds which made it no quicker than conventional aircraft.

BAC and Sud Aviation had difficulty selling the aircraft to airlines, with 12 canceling their orders three years before the first commercial flight. 

In addition to the sonic boom issue, Concorde engines were heavy on fuel and thus had a limited range. With a total capacity of 100, the Concorde consumed the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 that could travel twice as far and carry four times more passengers.

In most cases, the cost of fuel exceeded the profit from each flight – making the commercial viability of Concorde extremely vulnerable to high fuel prices. 

Air France Flight 4590

In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed shortly after taking off from Paris. 109 people on board were killed plus four on the ground.

Investigators determined that the plane had run over a piece of metal debris from another aircraft, causing a tire to explode and ignite fuel in the wings.

The accident was not a failing of the Concorde itself, but it did provide the impetus for its eventual retirement. Both airlines were instructed to make safety modifications to the Concorde design which cost $150 million.

September 11 attacks

In a twist of fate, the first Concorde flight to test the new modifications landed in New York City moments before the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center. 

In the aftermath of the attacks, aircraft around the world were grounded indefinitely.

When aviation did return to some normality, the premium first-class market collapsed and consumer confidence in air travel was low. To compensate for reduced patronage and increased safety restrictions, most airlines had to cut costs to survive.

This did not come naturally to British Airways and Air France. The airlines, who had only recently spent $150 million, would never recoup their costs.

Airbus withdrew maintenance support soon after, signaling the end of commercial operations for both airlines.

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