It had been an ambition of British and French aviation experts since the mid-1950s: What if they could design and build a commercial aircraft that could travel at up to twice the speed of sound, ferrying passengers from one corner of the world to another in less than half the time of conventional jets? Was there enough money, know-how, and government interest to facilitate such a project? And if there was, would it ever get off the ground?
The answer came on November 4, 1970, when test pilot Andre Turcat flew the plane—dubbed the Concorde—over the Atlantic and achieved speeds of 1320 miles per hour. British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and France’s Sud-Aviation, the two companies investing heavily in the technology, were convinced passengers from all over the world would soon be streaking through the skies and making record times during air commutes. Turcat might be the passenger plane’s equivalent of Neil Armstrong, guiding mankind into an unlikely new frontier in the stratosphere.
The Concorde would eventually become a commercial plane, holding up to 100 passengers at a time and moving so quickly that people departing London’s Heathrow Airport at 9 a.m. would arrive in New York City at 7 a.m. But instead of being the next evolution of air travel, the model would become an untenable nuisance, crippled by complaints from environmentalists and burdened by seemingly incalculable expenses. By 2003, all 14 operating planes would be permanently grounded—long doomed, naysayers said, before they ever got off the ground.
The excitement over supersonic air travel had its roots in the 1950s, when the British aircraft industry came to a sobering conclusion about the burgeoning airline business. Having been relegated to manufacturing cargo and combat planes during World War II, the UK had no firm footing when the war’s end brought about a surging interest in air travel. It was the United States that had been experimenting with passenger planes, and it was the U.S. that had the market on subsonic travel cornered.
Rather than try to compete, British and French engineers decided to create an entirely new category. Fighter planes that had recently broken the sound barrier provided hope that passenger models could do the same. In creating the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, or STAC, the British imagined a future where they could sell 150 to 500 supersonic planes to airlines by the 1970s.
As space exploration had already proven, that kind of ambition came with a hefty price tag. STAC was able to successfully interest France enough to enter a partnership to develop the planes in 1960, with the first prototype ready in 1968. In between, the cost to develop and refine the project reached a reported $2.3 billion (although some economists declared it might have been three times as much).
Throughout that period, the Concorde suffered from wavering support from both governments. In 1964, Prime Minister Harold Wilson nearly ceased development before being threatened with a lawsuit by supporter Charles de Gaulle. Supporters believed the U.S.’s flourishing air travel industry would demand Concordes in their fleet in order to not be left behind.
Instead, the Concorde was met with outright opposition. After the first passenger flight was completed from London to Bahrain in January 1976, the U.S. allowed for a 16-month trial at Washington’s Dulles Airport, but New York City's JFK Airport begged off entirely. (They relented in 1977.) The hesitancy stemmed from concerns over both noise pollution and environmental consequences. Producing a sonic boom at airports near residential areas annoyed residents; the 100 tons of fuel burned from New York to London was thought to exhaust dangerous emissions that could threaten the ozone layer. Some incoming flights were met with protestors with signs reading “Ban the Boom.” Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spoke out against supersonic travel, citing these hypothetical dangers. Meanwhile, major airlines like TWA and Pan Am turned away, believing the cost-to-profit ratio would never be worth the effort. Only Air France and British Airways wound up buying the plane, purchasing seven each.
What kept the Concorde aloft despite operating at a loss for the first six years was business travelers. Often in higher income brackets and charging company accounts, they were willing to pay steep ticket prices (a round-trip ticket could cost more than $5000 in the 1980s, $1200 more than a subsonic flight) in order to cut their commuting time in half or more. A meeting in Tokyo for people departing from San Francisco could be scheduled six hours from take-off; getting to Australia from Los Angeles took just seven hours. A standard 737 traveled at 485 miles per hour; the Concorde eventually crept up to 1495 miles per hour, close to the speed of a bullet.
Strangely, the Concorde didn’t indulge these customers with an abundance of luxury. Cabins on the model were said to be cramped, with hand-sized windows and uncomfortable seats. Engineers had built the plane to travel at incredible speed and worried about how to accommodate passengers later, not the other way around. The craft took off at a steep incline, and travelers felt like they were in a rocketing dental chair.
By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that business would never climb to heights that could possibly underwrite the massive expenditure of both governments. While the Concorde began showing a profit, it was due in some part to political sleight of hand: British government employees were required to fly at supersonic speeds, underwriting their own investment.
Despite being called a failure as early as 1986, the Concorde’s 14-plane fleet hung on until 2000. That year, a Concorde crash that killed 113 passengers led to all of the planes being grounded for a year until the cause was determined. (It was eventually determined that an errant piece of metal punctured the fuel tank, and ignited a fire.) Once flights resumed, the pall cast by 9/11 over the entire airline industry proved to be a crippling blow. The Concorde was retired permanently in 2003. Many of the aircraft ended up in museums.
For the most part, consumers invite technological advances, and it’s bizarre to think the airline industry failed to capitalize on a plane that could cut travel times in half. But the consumer has to sense a perceived benefit, and it didn’t seem as though enough travelers considered the additional cost to be worth the time saved.
Currently, companies like the Denver-based Boom are experimenting with supersonic planes that can be built more affordably with reduced noise levels; Boom expects their model to be airborne in 2018, with commercial service opening up by 2023. Whether it can improve on the Concorde’s track record remains to be seen. Despite radical innovations across the spectrum of technology, supersonic flight couldn't be moving slower.