What's the Deal with: The Concorde and Our Love for Supersonic Flight

LONGFORM

Travel Analysis


The speedbird too advanced for its time

Of sonic booms, petty governments and why you don't see the fastest commercial plane flying these days

  G-N94AD painted in a dual BA-SQ livery at Heathrow Airport, photo from Chris McKee, flickr

 G-N94AD painted in a dual BA-SQ livery at Heathrow Airport, photo from Chris McKee, flickr

The world’s most iconic jet (and definitely the one that inspires the most awe) is perhaps not the 747 or the A380 but the Concorde - a supersonic airliner that perfectly encapsulates the 1970’s hope for a technology-focused and vibrant future. While it wasn't the fastest plane, its supersonic flight speeds certainly made it the fastest commercial plane. With its turbojet and droop nose design being such a radical departure from what was considered normal for airliners in those days, the jet was an instant hit with the general public. And for the lucky ones who got to see it at Paya Lebar Airport, the Singapore Airlines Concorde Hotel was a sight to behold!

The Concorde was borne out of mankind’s desire to perfect the art of aviation. In the preceding decades, air travel went from the aspiration of daredevils seated in wooden-props to mass-market jet airliners that could fit (or more likely, squeeze) up to 600 passengers into a single jumbo jet. 

 Concorde in its production stages, photo from   www  .  aircraft  -  info  .  net

Concorde in its production stages, photo from www.aircraft-info.net

Development

Supersonic travel as a concept has always amazed people with the speeds at which it can connect major cities with each other. For example, the extremely lucrative cross-atlantic New York - London route routinely took only about 3 hours when flying with Concorde whilst these days, the same trip will leave you in the air for about 7 whole hours. And if you consider that London is always either 4/5 hours ahead of New York, flying with Concorde means that you'll land even 'before' you took off.

European civil aviation in the 50s and 60s was a hodgepodge of mostly military dominated companies, which is nothing like what we see today where the global airliner market is dominated by two gigantic manufacturers and a few other smaller jet companies. In this vein, though the British de Havilland Comet was the first commercial jet airliner to fly, the global aviation market soon became dominated by Boeing and to a somewhat lesser extent, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed. All three of these companies were American.

Hence, with a mostly military-first imperative (and experience), a plan was quickly drawn up to pioneer developments in supersonic transport before the rest of the world. Through a mix of heated debates and protracted negotiations, the British and French married together a joint project involved the former's BAC and the latter's Sud Aviation to develop a commercially viable supersonic airliner. 

Developing such an ambitious airliner was no easy feat. The aircraft had to be longer and thinner than usual to distribute vibrations better, its paint more reflective to prevent more heat buildup and had to have a special Delta Wing to achieve better lift during takeoff and minimise the levels of drag while the aircraft was in the air. The plane's signature droop nose also was yet another measure to help pilots navigate and land more effectively as the aircraft had takeoff and landing patterns that if not for the droop nose, would mean that pilots would not be able to see the ground.

Costs spiralled during the initial development stage to about six times the original projected cost schedule, which combined with lacklustre demand for the jet, put severe pressure on its manufacturers. As such, whilst public interest in the project was significant, the sales effort for the aircraft drew a lesser than expected order book for the supersonic aircraft especially once its fuel and operating efficiency came into doubt. While its marketers hoped for around 350 planes to be sold, the total number of orders barely scraped a hundred, which combined with skyrocketing costs, placed an even more existential pressure on the project. 

 One of Air France's Concordes flying into Princess Juliana Intl Airport on St Maarten, photo from aviationclub.aero

One of Air France's Concordes flying into Princess Juliana Intl Airport on St Maarten, photo from aviationclub.aero

Operation 

However, for most of the 70s, the Concorde remained as the mainstay of the rich willing to pay a premium for the jet’s luxury, speed and not to mention, bragging rights. How fast was the Concorde? Well, the Concorde was the fastest commercial plane and could reach a max speed of 2,179km/h and often was at a cruising speed of just 30km/h slower. 

The Concorde ended up being mostly operated only by the flag carriers of the two governments who funded the program. British Airways (BA) would fly regular services between London and New York/Washington DC under its own flag. The carrier also entered joint operation arrangements with Singapore Airlines (in a twin livery aircraft) to Singapore via Bahrain after transatlantic services were discontinued temporarily.

However, the route was quickly declared unviable after the Malaysian and Indian governments banned Concorde from entering their airspace. In order to continue operations, the plane would then be forced into an indirect routing pattern that would have added travel time to the flight whilst forcing it to adopt inefficient engine firing patterns. Side note: though concerns about sonic booms are indeed legitimate, the primary as to why these two governments objected to Concorde flying over their territory was perhaps due to a more petty self-interested reason which we'll cover later.

Like BA, Air France also operated many flagship routes out of its hub in Paris, but these also included many leisure destinations in the Caribbean and in Latin America. The carrier operated its Concordes to Mexico City, on a Paris - Rio De Janeiro route and another to Caracas as well. However, for various political and economic reasons, the profitability of these routes declined over time, forcing Air France to gradually reduce frequencies and in some cases, cancel whole routes.

As you've noticed, though the Concorde muscled onto the world stage quite magnanimously, it soon became clear the various reasons conspired to doom the airliner and the airlines that operated it. Operations to the US was marred by citizen protests, requiring multiple challenges to lift the New York Port Authority’s ban on supersonic jets landing in JFK. 

Apart from snarky political differences, the Concorde soon subsisted on chartered flights instead of regular passenger services as high costs and declining demand (resulting in low load factors) threatened its future survival. As such, many holiday destinations received some love as airlines sought to capture the luxury leisure market. Destinations like the Barbados were popular amongst holiday makers (through tour packages) thereby prompting many Concorde to serve under Charter routes. 

 One of British Airways' promotional posters exalting the glamour of its Concorde, photo from British Airways

One of British Airways' promotional posters exalting the glamour of its Concorde, photo from British Airways

Problems

So why did Concorde stop flying? A variety of reasons. 

Fuel efficiency

In exchange for its speed, the Concorde was a gas guzzler compared to its ordinary jet counterparts. In ordinary operations, its fuel efficiency was about half or in some instances, close to a third of its competitors, which in an era of price competition between carriers, meant that the Concorde gradually fell out of favour. Consumers were becoming seduced with the idea of lower ticket prices from carriers all across the globe as the greater fuel efficiencies significantly reduced operation costs. Concorde represented a repudiation of that trend, a move that didn't sit well with many bean counters. 

In addition, as the jet was extremely inefficient at low speeds, many analysts estimated that the airliner burned as much as 2% of its fuel just taxiing to the runway - a horrible way of burning up precious fuel. In the post 1983 oil crisis, this became unpalatable. 

Th rate at which the aircraft burned fuel during flight also meant that an immensely lucrative direct cross-pacific journey was off the cards for Concorde as the extended range meant that the Concorde could not carry sufficient fuel to make the journey.

Sonic booms

The Concorde service soon found itself in the crossroads of aviation disputes as it began services. How so? The governments of various countries began to use the issue of loud and disruptive sonic booms as a means of negotiating for more concessions out of the UK. 

The Indian and Malaysian governments used the leverage they had by being in the flightpath of the London - Singapore route to complain about the sonic booms the jet made whilst crossing their territory. The solution? Grant Air India and Malaysia Airlines more slots at the busy Heathrow Airport and 5th freedom rights (flights that involve 3 separate countries including the one its carrier is based in).

In case you think that this sounds completely petty and unreasonable, well, you're right. Though sonic booms that these governments were complaining about were legitimate, the 'solutions' they proposed did little to solve the actual problem. And as for the case of Malaysia Airlines, the end of the Concorde service also meant dampening the success of its biggest rival (hint: it lives to the South). 

Sonic booms were also a real problem for the people living in the US, as residents of Oklahoma City discovered in 1964. As part of Operation Bongo, the US government subjected the residents of the city to a sustained 6 month campaign of sonic booms at least 8 times a day. Though the Air Force endeavour to forewarn the city’s inhabitants, they essentially had no say in whether they wanted to be subjected to the tests or not. For a country just emerging from a World War, the continuation of war-esque annoyances (named the ‘sounds of freedom’) was unpalatable. Not only did the government get inundated by written complaints, they were also unable to cope with the amount of damage claims from broken windows to toppled shelves. And as this point, we should all be happy that the RSAF is banned from entering supersonic flight over mainland Singapore.

The noises were deemed so disruptive to daily life that the Air Force also once contemplated deploying supersonic flights over Cuba to ‘create confusion and damage’ in order to stir panic in the population whilst causing some low grade damage which undoubtedly would add to the panic. 

A ban over the continental United States also severely limited the Concorde's ability to garner sales as it was kicked out of lucrative transcontinental routes. However, Concorde did indeed end up flying over the United States, once over Florida with Air France where the plane had to be decelerated to 0.95 Mach and also with Braniff International Airways, the carrier using Concorde to fly sub-sonically (why even?) between Dallas and Washington DC with connecting supersonic flights to London and Paris. However, undoubtedly, these proved to be unpopular and were quickly phased out. 

General costs

As it sat only about 120 people, ticket prices remained high amongst the other high operational costs like the need for specifically trained crew members, airport ground staff and also maintenance costs. The jet also called for the presence of a flight engineer in the cockpit, a role many airliners in the late 90s already did away with.

Having such a unique jet also meant that IROPS were more difficult to handle especially when you have to cater to the most premium market segments in the entire industry who demand nothing but perfection. In short, those who pay for Concorde will not accept not flying on one. That being said, you could redeem award miles for a flight on the Concorde, which I guess is perhaps one of the best redemptions options one would have had in history.

 An Air France Concorde in flight next to a Lufthansa Cargo 747, photo from T S, pinterest

An Air France Concorde in flight next to a Lufthansa Cargo 747, photo from T S, pinterest

End of Service

Though far advanced for its age, aviation companies the world over expected supersonic airliners to replace the cheap and prevalent jet airliners that brought air travel into the mainstream. However, as the years progressed, demand for flying moved downmarket as global events pushed up the price of fuel. Hence, the Concorde with its premium positioning and inefficiencies gradually lost favour amongst the world’s airlines. 

The last few nails in The Coffin for the Concorde came to head after Air France 4590 crashed following a runway accident and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent slump in air travel, British Airways and Air France found it unsustainable financially to continue operating services and hence announced the retirement of the aircraft following the service becoming unprofitable as a result of low passengers numbers, safety concerns and high fuel costs. 

Concorde's last flight occured on 24 October 2003 on a journey from New York to London. Many loved this particular Concorde jet, but it was unfortunately the first and and last supersonic passenger jet to ever fly.

Plans are however, afoot by an organisation named Club Concorde to once again restore Concorde to its former glory. The plan calls for two ambitious projects, both ambitious projects in their own right. The former would involve a relocation of a grounded Concorde at the Orly Airport in Paris to a platform located along the Thames and near the London Eye to serve as a tourist attraction. In this effort, the club hopes to ‘bring back’ the magic of supersonic travel and allow greater access to the public. The second project involves refurbishing one of the Concordes now found in museums and returning them to the skies for charter flights.

 
 A black and white shot of a Concorde landing in Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport, photo from The Daily Telegraph Australia

A black and white shot of a Concorde landing in Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport, photo from The Daily Telegraph Australia

So what's next?

New supersonic airliners and flight plans are being planned, the most prominent of which is the Boom supersonic airliner, conceptualised by a Denver-based startup. The startup is also supported by mogul Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic alongside a host of 5 other carriers interested in the new airliner. There are currently around 76 options from these carriers.

As limitations over supersonic flight over land are still in place, the company had to get creative with its marketing plan but was able to deliver 500 routes where it could achieve Mach 2.2 speeds whilst still keeping itself within legal constraints. Many of these are cross-pacific routes. 

As such, this is a very exciting development for East Asian carriers that have yet to experience the magic of supersonic travel as the Concorde only had sufficient range to cross the Atlantic. Flights between cities like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing to destinations in the US on the West Coast could prove to be very profitable especially amongst business travellers.

Its first prototype, a 'New Concorde' with a cute name called 'Baby Boom' is scheduled to make its first flight in the tail-end of 2018 after which full tests at supersonic speeds will occur the following year. 

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