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ANALYSIS: Still no heir to Concorde is apparent

Comment from the October 2013 edition of Airline Business

‘‘I cannot find any operator who wants a supersonic airliner in the foreseeable future.”

That observation was made not in 2013, nor a decade ago as Concorde operated its last services. It was a view expressed way back in 1962 as the UK and France prepared to launch the Concorde project.

Admittedly, the observer – Sir Aubrey Burke – had his own agenda. Burke was deputy managing director of Hawker Siddeley and rival to BAC – the British partner in the Anglo-French supersonic joint venture. Ultimately, however, his forecast proved correct: just 14 Concordes were delivered to a pair of reluctant customers who, of course, were also the national airlines of the programme’s two sponsors.

Even at the start of the supersonic era in the early 1960s – amid the headlong rush by Europe, the Soviet Union and the USA to develop ultra-fast airliners – there were those who doubted the value proposition of a Mach 2+ transport. Much as the debate rages today about the true size of the very big jet market, the analysts in the rock ’n’ roll years argued about the viability of supersonic transports (SSTs).

During a House of Lords debate in November 1962 as the Anglo/French SST agreement was being prepared, Lord Brabazon – the aviation visionary who laid the foundation for the development of the de Havilland Comet – described the project as a “prestige stunt” that “would put the civil aviation industry into the red forever”.

The world might have been a different place in those romantic early years of the jet era, but clearly even then there was not resolute belief in the need for ever-faster airliners.

In 1962, IATA outlined 10 “imperative design objectives” for any SST. One of these was that the aircraft’s seat-mile costs “must be equal to or better than those of subsonic jets of comparable size and range, operating at the time of its introduction”. And that was long before the oil crisis of the early 1970s.

Concorde, of course, missed that goal by a country mile. When it was being conceived in the early 1960s, the subsonic benchmark was the narrowbody Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which it could just about match. However, at service entry – much later than planned, in 1976 – the widebody had arrived and raised the bar by an order of magnitude.

Despite its speed and unashamed beauty, Concorde was a financial disaster for its two state-owned manufacturers. It brought more success for its operators, but only on a subsidised basis – British Airways and Air France paid not a penny for their aircraft.

As the pilots waved their union flags at the end of Concorde’s final revenue services on 24 October 2003, transatlantic journey times grew, rather than shrank, for the first time in history. A decade on, and the prospect of that situation changing is as remote as ever.

The reasons are simple. IATA’s SST comparative seat-mile cost objective is as relevant today as in 1962. That’s why Boeing’s much-vaunted Sonic Cruiser never got beyond the drawing board in the early 2000s. Then there are the other design headaches relating to sonic boom “pollution” and environmental issues, not to mention the prospect of huge development costs.

Today’s airlines understand the value that their customers place on speed and journey times. The “connected cabin” is gradually becoming the norm. So time business travellers spend in the air can now be worth as much, if not more, than time on the ground.

Moreover, the continuous improvements in cabin comfort appear to know no bounds, as network carriers vie to set new benchmarks in onboard products in the battle for high-yield passengers. The first class cabins flying when Concorde made its debut would struggle to compete with today’s premium economy standards, let alone business class.

So hard though it is to believe, the supersonic airliner era of the late 20th century will be a “spike” in the evolution of human transportation for generations to come.

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