Concorde and the mothballing of ambition

The problem isn't Concorde's retirement, but the fact that nothing even as good has been born since.

Peter Smith

Topics Politics

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On 10 April, British Airways and Air France announced that all Concorde services were to be suspended from October 2003, for commercial reasons.

The investment required to upgrade and maintain the fleet of seven British Airways and five Air France Concordes was deemed too much, given current airline business levels. British Airways is set to cease services at the end of October and Air France may cease services earlier, depending on demand.

While this is a great shame, let’s be honest. Concorde should have been seen as past its sell-by date long ago.

Sure, Concorde is supersonic. When flying at top speed, it is faster than the speed of sound; and flying at 60,000 feet, it is the closest commercial flight operation to space. In fact, it’s the closest anyone other than an astronaut and the odd balloonist would come to space.

In technological terms Concorde is way ahead of the pack. As the Financial Times notes on 10 April: ‘Concorde has set technical standards that have never been matched.’ (1) But this, surely, is the problem. We don’t need to mourn the end of Concorde. But the fact that nothing has been built even to match it, even surpass it, is a rather depressing sign of the times.

Concorde made its first flight back in 1969, and entered service in 1976. Its first commercial flights took place on 21 January 1976, when British Airways flew from London Heathrow to Bahrain and Air France from Paris to Rio. Think about it – other than classic car owners, how many people drive a car made in 1976? How many people still listen to music on a stereo built back when Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was Number 1?

Yet the aircraft technology of the 1960s remains the airline industry’s highest ever standards. No amount of on-board movies, free ice-cream, video games or massages and manicures can escape the fact that we’ve been unable to fly to a destination any more quickly than the time achieved by Concorde’s first flight, a quarter of a century ago.

Over the years Concorde has struggled to remain profitable and, given the current downturn in air travel, Concorde has become commercially unviable. Justifying the decision, British Airway’s chief executive Rod Eddington said: ‘This is the end of a fantastic era in world aviation but bringing forward Concorde’s retirement is a prudent business decision at a time, when we are having to make difficult decisions right across the airline.’ (2)

Furthermore, Concorde never really recovered from the fatal accident back in July 2000, where an Air France flight departing from Paris crashed, claiming the lives of all 113 passengers and crew on board. Following this incident, all Concorde operations were suspended for a year. Most regular customers switched to first class on more regular transatlantic routes.

The Financial Times notes that ‘BA has found it commercially impossible to restart the previous twice-daily services between London and New York and had been forced to restrict it to just half that level with one departure a day in each direction, further undermining the economics of the operation’(3). But maintaining Concorde services was arguably never really about making money per se.

Concorde was a demonstration of the ambition we once had for air travel. The speed and luxury of Concorde offered a glimpse of how we would like travel to be. Now, all that ambition, it seems, is history.

According to the BBC News, British Airways ‘intends to make sure Concorde bows out in style, with a special programme of events and the planes themselves destined for museums’ (4). The most technically advanced and luxurious aircraft is being retired to the museum, not because it has been superseded with a more modern fleet, but because we simply gave up on the idea of developing air travel. Just as Concorde was a fitting sign of the optimism of its time back in the late 1960s, it is a fitting sign of the pessimism of today.

No doubt green critics of air travel will be delighted that such a fuel-guzzler as Concorde is no more. Likewise, academics and commentators who suggest that we should reflect more on our immediate surroundings rather than indulge in such ‘hyper-mobile’ travel will suggest this gives us the opportunity to spend more time supporting our local Post Office.

But for me, the world is a little smaller without Concorde – and I can’t help thinking we are all a little smaller as a result.

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company.

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Topics Politics


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