When Concorde entered into airline service in 1976, the landmark was met with something less than unalloyed delight – at least at British Airways.
Elements of management at its predecessor, BOAC, had always harboured doubts about the aircraft’s economics and this had not changed by the time the first fare-paying passengers took their seats.
Reviewing its second year in service, Flight noted that “chairman Sir Frank McFadzean’s feeling that the aircraft was a commercial non-starter … was an ill-kept secret”.
It also noted that “utilisation little short of pathetic crippled profitability”, with the fleet having recorded an “amazing 440h/aircraft” – actually 20% lower than for its initial year in service. Air France had achieved a healthier 870h/aircraft.
Transatlantic traffic “has tended to be strongly directional because the timings of the westbound flights are more appealing compared with subsonic services than are the eastbound sectors”.
This was because the London/Paris-New York service enabled business executives to save a working day, whereas the eastbound services simply got passengers to London or Paris faster. Paris-New York load factors were 67% westbound, but just 48% on the return. There was a similar divergence on the Paris-Rio run. BA reported 95% occupancy on the London-New York sector, but the article did not reveal the eastbound figures.
A "View from the flightdeck" article in the same issue was distinctly more positive, with a BA captain extolling the aircraft’s technical virtues and growing maturity – but it would be unusual to find a pilot not beguiled by the aircraft.
The previous year, an article on the aircraft’s entry into service had recorded despatch reliability in the first year of BA service as just 92.5-93%, a figure with which manufacturer BAC declared itself dissatisfied, seeking to increase it to 97-98%.
A factor behind many problems was the aircraft’s low utilisation rate. “The worst thing you can do with most complex electronic systems is switch them off, leave them for 24 hours and switch them on again,” noted a BAC representative.
The article noted that despatch reliability at BA had been improved by adopting an Air France technique of having a non-flying flight engineer start the checklists three hours before departure time, rather than the more usual one hour.
This dramatically cut delays, reported Flight: “The extra two hours between detection of a fault or a hypochondriac warning light is often enough to allow an LRU (line-replaceable unit) change, and a great many gremlins are exorcised by simply removing an LRU and putting it back again.”
When Flight conducted a 20-year retrospective of Concorde’s service in 1996, both airlines’ fleets were still sprightly: BA’s lead aircraft had accumulated just 6,800 cycles and around 18,000h. BA operated each of its aircraft for 300-350 cycles and 900-1,100h per year, whereas a Boeing 747 would typically clock up 4,000-5,000h.
Airframe condition benefited from the aircraft’s flight regime in the dry stratosphere, with its hull being heated by the friction of supersonic flight. “The structure is very good because we see virtually no corrosion compared to that of a subsonic aircraft,” noted BA Concorde fleet/project manager Dennis Morris.
In 1996, this gentle ageing process led Air France to indicate that it would be able to keep its aircraft in service for a further two decades, until 2016.
For some passengers – and compared to wide-bodied aircraft – Concorde seemed cramped. British Airways and Air France had been aware from the outset that the long, slim fuselage, with its four-abreast seating, could seem tunnel-like to passengers, and therefore employed a series of visual tricks to break up the cylindrical effect. Early BA Concordes, for example, used horizontally striped fabric to make the seats appear wider.
The correspondent for the Times agreed that the ceiling was “a little low” and that the seats provided roughly the same space as conventional economy class, but noted that they had “far superior” upholstery.
Seat designs were initially conventional, but refits in the 1990s introduced more futuristic seating shapes that employed a switch to leather, together with larger overhead bins and lighting.
Latterly both airlines opted for a look of restrained, almost ascetic, luxury, rather than opulence. Air France described its redesigned mid-1990s cabin as “sober and refined”. Pictures of busy flights emphasised the relative lack of room, but few passengers seemed to object. Business passengers used the aircraft for its time-saving qualities, while leisure travellers were usually so entranced at being on board that the relative lack of personal space faded into insignificance.