Any aircraft project that crosses international boundaries tends to have a political dimension, and Concorde was no exception.
Politics – along with economics – was a major driver of the project: there was a great desire to steal a march on the US airliner industry with a supersonic transport (SST); in fact, just two days after Pan American ordered the Anglo-French aircraft in 1963, President Kennedy urged US industry to design a “faster and economically more attractive airliner” as a competitor.
The British government realised early in the process that international collaboration would be necessary to spread the cost of such a project. With this in mind, an intergovernmental treaty to develop an Anglo-French SST was signed in London on 29 November 1962 by UK aviation minister Julian Amery and the French ambassador, Geoffroy de Courcel. A "poison pill" clause was inserted to ensure both sides stuck with the project. If either country pulled out, it would have to pay the other party’s share of the development costs.
Development costs in 1962 were estimated at between £150 million and £170 million (around $420-475 million at the prevailing exchange rate). Just 18 months later, this had leapt to £280 million, and with the British Conservative government being replaced by Labour in October 1964, the new administration quickly started to look critically at the project.
Thoughts of withdrawal were blocked by French determination, a reluctance to upset the French government when the UK was seeking to enter the common market (a forerunner to the European Union) and the binding nature of the treaty.
“The Concorde is more than just a national aircraft programme,” thundered Flight in November 1964. “It is a binding international treaty which cannot be abrogated unilaterally without perfidy.”
Labour’s aviation minister, Roy Jenkins, subsequently restated the government’s somewhat lukewarm support to the project in January 1965.
A minor but perplexing political problem was the spelling of the aircraft’s name, with the UK initially opting for the British spelling without the final "e". At the roll-out of the first prototype at Toulouse on 11 December 1967, UK technology minister Tony Benn conceded to the French version. This caused apoplexy in certain quarters in the UK. In a piece of quick political footwork, Benn said the "e" stood for "England, excellence, Europe and entente".
Cancellation by Congress of the US SST programme in 1971 in theory left the field open for Concorde, but in retrospect many felt it was actually more of a hindrance, with the environmental lobby in the USA tacitly backed by elements in the country’s government and airliner industry that saw the Anglo-French SST as a threat. Indeed, by 1971, seven US carriers had placed options for the aircraft (the orderbook listed 16 airlines in total, with over 100 options).
US route approvals were difficult to win. This was a blow, as the business-heavy transatlantic route to the US eastern seaboard was considered vital.
In December 1975, the US House of Representatives voted to ban Concorde from US airspace for six months. The following February, permission was granted for 16 months of trial flights into Washington Dulles airport.
The US federal ban on operations into New York JFK was lifted in February 1977 but the New York Port Authority then unilaterally barred the aircraft, a decision that was only overruled by the US Supreme Court in October that year. Services began by the end of 1977.
So concerned were the UK and French governments that Prime Minister James Callaghan and President Giscard d’Estaing made direct representations to President Carter regarding the delay.
By this time, development costs had soared to £1.6 billion, and by the early 1980s, the two governments could see no end to continuing losses. However, after BA chairman Sir John King persuaded the UK government to sell the aircraft to the company, the British aircraft, at least, operated at a profit.
Concorde’s career ended not so much because of politics but economics. The aircraft never fully recovered from the tragic Air France crash in July 2000 and rising maintenance bills also began to impinge.
Hard economics and environmental concerns are also likely to play a larger role than politics in any future SST – Flight International reported in May that NASA is considering a "low boom" supersonic demonstrator. But with commercial supersonic flights currently banned over the USA, politicians will have to get involved to change the law.