Photos: Inside the aircraft that ferried passengers from London to New York in 3.5 hours | Condé Nast Traveller IndiaMay 25, 2021
Travelling across the Atlantic in less than four hours may sound like a futuristic dream. But 18 years ago, a glamorous aircraft ferried passengers from Paris to New York in little over the time it took to finish a seven-course French meal—3.5 hours. The engineering miracle and design marvel was called Concorde.
Inside the Concorde
The aircraft, which took off for the skies on 2 March 1969 from Toulouse in France, had a certain romance to it. “You would always stop what you were doing [when it took off or landed],” Brian Lovegrove, a former British Airways employee told The Atlantic. “You could never have enough of seeing it. It was a delight to watch and hear.”
The supersonic liner travelled faster than the speed of sound. It flew at 1300mph, quicker than the Earth spins. The Concorde soared so high that you could see the Earth’s curve.
A ticket from London to New York on a flight operated by British Airways cost a whopping $7,574 (Rs5,50,000), which is equivalent to $12,460 (Rs9 lakh) today. But for the price, the Concorde experience wasn’t exactly comfortable or luxurious. “The cabin was just like the Economy class of any other aircraft, except narrower. With only two seats on either side of the aisle and not even enough space to stand up straight, it was like being inside a little tube,” Devesh Agarwal, a Bangalore-based aviation geek, who once flew on Concorde from London to New York over twenty years ago, told CNT India, in an earlier interview. The service, though more than made up for it. “It was beyond First Class. An onboard meal was nothing less than caviar and lobster accompanied by vintage champagne,” he added. Sometimes even foie gras and truffles were part of the menu.
The invention of the Concorde
British Aircraft Corporation and France’s Aerospatiale were the makers of the Concorde. Both the country’s governments were in the search of the next best thing in aviation. While both Britain and France had prototypes, the cost of production was very high, so they decided to pool in their resources and join forces, forming what is now Airbus.
The Concorde made its first transatlantic flight on 26 September 1973, and inaugurated its first passenger flight on 21 January, 1976. British Airways flew the aircraft from London to Bahrain, Air France from Paris to Rio De Janeiro. Both airlines added regular flights to Washington DC and New York in 1977. Several other routes were added, and the Concorde flew chartered flights to destinations all over. However, the aircraft was extremely noisy. A take-off at Washington airport in 1977 measured 119.4 decibels. A thunder clap reaches 120 decibels, and a human ears threshold was 110. Broken glasses, howling pets and the crashing noise caused many countries to discontinue flights. Concorde flights started to operate only on ocean routes. So, there could be no flight from New York to Los Angeles. The mounting operating expenses and restrictions led both airlines to further cut routes, eventually operating flights only to New York City.
Then one day, the Concorde crashed
On 25 July 2000, Air France flight 4590 took off from Charles De Gaulle Airport with a punctured tire and crashed a few minutes later, taking away the lives of 109 people on board and four on ground. While some blamed the crash on a piece of debris on the runway, others pointed out a problem specific to Concorde tyres.
The aircraft was grounded until November 2001. After 27 years of flying passengers in lighting speed, British Airways and Air France announced that they would retire their fleets due to the spike in costs of maintaining the fleet and the sharp drop in demand by passengers after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Concorde’s failure was attributed to several factors. Besides the noise concerns and limited routes, there were environmental concerns. Since it flew much higher than a regular aircraft, the exhaust gas it let out at that height could threaten the ozone layer. Plus the Concorde consumed a high amount of fuel. Its four engines guzzled 20 tonnes of kerosene per hour and 450 litres per minute at take off. Fuel price fluctuations could hit the price of tickets very hard. The Concorde could also only accommodate 120 people, so the prices were high and couldn’t be distributed among more people like it is today. The manufacturer Airbus realised supporting the aircraft was almost impossible. On 26 November 2003, Concorde flew its last flight ever. Several people who loved the plane for its glamour, speed, caviar and champagne mourned its loss.
Will the Concorde make a comeback?
In January 2020, Nevada-based firm Aerion Supersonic revealed its plan to replace the Concorde with an AS2 jet flight that flies at double the speed of a regular commercial flight. However, on Friday, the company announced that it was ceasing operations due to a lack of funds. In 2015, Club Concorde, a group of admirers of the aircraft, claimed to have raised GBP 120 million to put the supersonic passenger back in the sky. The club had plans “to purchase one of the Concorde (based in France) and operate her as a private, heritage aircraft under neutral livery”. In 2019, Emirates announced that it would relaunch the supersonic jet by 2022. In 2020, Boom Supersonic released a supersonic prototype they want to get in the air by 2026. The company’s far-fetched aim is to connect any place in the world in four hours for $100 (Rs7,227). Will the needle-nose rise up in the skies once again is a big question. Until then, the aircraft remains to be prized memorabilia for its many admirers.