Concorde Secrets: What Airlines Had Orders For The Supersonic Jet?

Concorde was retired in 2003 after 27 years of operation. It is remembered for its long service with both British Airways and Air France, but it was much more popular at its outset. 18 airlines placed options for Concorde, but all except two canceled them.

Concorde, and the development and future of supersonic flight, could have turned out very differently had more of these orders been realized. Let’s take a look at the airlines that placed and canceled options, and why they did this. 

British Airways Concorde
British Airways was one of only two airlines to operate Concorde. Photo: Getty Images

Concorde – a British and French endeavor

Plans for supersonic commercial aircraft picked up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the United States, Boeing was working on the 2707, and Lockheed on the L-2000. Russia developed and built the Tupolev Tu-144, first flying just before Concorde.

Concorde was Europe’s contribution. It was developed as part of an international treaty between the British and French governments. The name ‘Concorde’ was, in fact, chosen to represent this cooperation – with the English ‘concord’ and French ‘concorde’ meaning ‘agreement.’

Each of the two governments spent $1.44 billion developing the aircraft, vastly more than original estimates. Although the governments never saw any profit on the program, operating airlines did.

Concorde was built by British firm British Aircraft Corporation (later to become BAE Systems) and French firm Sud Aviation (later Aerospatiale). Despite being funded by the two governments, the intention was to sell to airlines worldwide.

Concorde in joint manufacturer livery
Concorde in joint manufacturer livery. Photo: André Cros via Wikimedia

Concorde took its first flight on March 2nd, 1969, and entered service in January 1976. Despite plenty of interest from other airlines, aircraft were only ever delivered to British Airways and Air France. Each airline took seven aircraft, and a further six aircraft were developed as prototypes and testing models.

For more on the story of Concorde and its development, take a look at these Concorde facts. And see this article for details on the various routes it operated.

Options (and orders) from 18 airlines

There was no shortage of interest in Concorde, and in all, around 100 options for later purchases were placed by 18 airlines. Only British Airways, Air France, and, interestingly, IranAir converted these to committed orders.

There were originally two versions of the aircraft – a long-range and a short-range version. There was little interest, however, in the short-range aircraft, and this was ultimately dropped. All orders and options placed were for the long-range version.

The following table shows all the airlines and their options or orders (data is sourced from website Heritage Concorde).

Concorde options Date Placed Date Cancelled
BOAC (then British Airways) 6

(plus 1 more in 1984)

June 3rd, 1963
Air France 6

(plus 1 more in 1980)

June 3rd 1963
Pan American World Airways 8 6 options June 3rd 1963, plus 2 more July 24th 1966 January 31st 1973
Continental 3 July 24th 1963 March 1973
Trans World Airlines (TWA) 6 4 options on October 16th 1963, 2 more on March 30th 1964 February 1973
American Airlines 6 4 options on October 7th 1963, 2 more on January 16th 1964 February 1973
Middle East Airlines (MEA) 4 2 on December 4th 1963, 2 more on January 16th 1964 February / June 1973
Qantas 4 March 19th 1964 2 options canceled in 1966, others 1973
Air India 2 July 15th 1964 February 1975
Japan Airlines 3 September 30th 1965 1973
Sabena 2 December 1st 1965 February 1973
Eastern Airlines 6 2 on June 28th 1966, August 15th 1966 and April 28th 1967 February 1973
United Airlines 6 June 29th 1966 November 1972
Braniff 3 September 1st 1966 February 1973
Lufthansa 3 February 16th 1967 April 1973
Air Canada 4 March 1st 1967 June 1972
CAAC 3  2 on July 24th 1972, 1 more on August 28th December 1979 / February 1980
IranAir 3 (2 orders, 1 option) October 8th 1972 February 1980

Why were these options and orders canceled?

Concorde was never designed to be just operated by just a British and a French airline, even though it was a joint program between those two countries. All other orders and options were canceled though, most by 1975, but a few airlines hung on until 1979/1980.

Six British Airways Concorde aircraft
Six of the British Airways Concorde aircraft – along with Air France, the only airlines to take delivery. Photo: British Airways

With only 14 aircraft delivered, the program would never be able to recover the massive cost of development. To break even, the consortium required 150 orders. Had more of these orders stuck, perhaps the Concorde program, and the future of supersonic flight, would have proceeded differently. 

Why then was Concorde and the dream of supersonic flight not to be for these airlines? Although reasons differed from one airline to another, the overarching issues included:

The increased cost of aircraft

The increasing cost of development led to increases in the cost to airlines. Coupled with this, there were uncertainties over both the cost of operation and what premium passengers would be prepared to pay. Supersonic flight was new, and increasing costs did not help confidence in its operating possibilities.

In a 1973 report of Pan Am canceling its orders, the New York Times explained this fear well:

“The price has soared from the under$20million per plane originally estimated until, with spare parts, it is $46million in 1972 dollars. Many insiders estimate escalation clauses will bring the price to $60 million.”

Cancellation of the Boeing 2707

The US alternative to the Concorde, the Boeing 2707, was canceled in 1971. This was for a variety of reasons – including rising costs, design difficulties, and environmental pressure.

The aircraft had more options placed than Concorde – at least 122 options from 26 airlines (including several that also placed options for Concorde). Such a high-profile cancellation did nothing to boost confidence in supersonic travel or the Concorde program.

Boeing 2707 sketch
Sketches of the Boeing 2707 design. Photo: Nibifer via Wikimedia

Crash of the Russian Tupolev Tu-144

Unlike the Boeing 2707, the Tupolev Tu-144 was built and entered service. The aircraft had its flaws, including a short-range, high fuel consumption, and limited passenger comfort. Concorde improved on all of these, but it was still affected when a Tu-144 crashed in 1973 while demonstrating at the Paris Air Show. Like the cancelation of the Boeing 2707, this was a significant setback for supersonic travel at a critical time.

Tupolev Tu-144
Tupolev Tu-144. Photo: Zimin.V.G via Wikimedia

Operating issues – noise and environment

The noise and environmental pollution associated with the sonic boom and operation caused many problems for Concorde (just as they were a significant factor in the cancellation of the Boeing 2707).  Early in the program, airlines had been denied landing slots at New York JFK, and there was increasing concern that territories would ban overland flying. Only operating over-water supersonic flights was a limitation many airlines did not want.

Preference for larger aircraft

Things change quickly in aviation, and the 1970s saw a shift in operating models. Many airlines saw the potential of larger, high capacity aircraft to reduce costs (and ticket prices), and the appeal of premium, high cost, travel diminished. Aircraft such as the Boeing 747 (first flying in 1969) provided a new direction for airlines. Many, including Qantas and several US airlines, embraced the 747 and changed their fleets significantly.

Pan Am 747
Many airlines opted for high capacity, lower cost, operations with aircraft such as the 747. Photo: Getty Images

Some specific airline options

IranAir

One of the most interesting orders was from IranAir. It was the closest to becoming a third operator of Concorde, having paced a confirmed order for two aircraft, and one further option.

IranAir Concorde
A mockup of what an IranAir Concorde could have looked like. Original photo: SpaceAero2 via Wikimedia

These orders were placed in October 1972 amidst close ties between the two countries. Several other deals between the countries were placed at the time, and pilots would travel to France for Concorde training. In 1978, the same year that the first aircraft was due to be delivered, Iran had a change of power. Relationships with the West changed, and the order was viewed as a sign of opulence from the previous Shah.

The orders were canceled in 1980, with the oil crisis at this time the final straw. The aircraft moved over to British Airways. The Concorde dream was not dead though for Iran. It did later charter Concorde (on a wet lease deal with Air France) for flights between Paris and Tehran, and Kish Island.

Qantas

Qantas, at one point, had strong ambitions for supersonic flights. It placed options for both Concorde (four aircraft) and the Boeing 2707 (six aircraft). The 2707 project, of course, was canceled, and in 1973, Qantas finally dropped its Concorde options.

As well as the general problems with supersonic flight faced by all airlines, Qantas had more specific issues. It planned to operate Concorde from Sydney to London via Singapore. But with only four aircraft, the frequency would be much lower than other services. Would passengers pay a high premium, just for faster service, when it was less frequent and less luxurious than other options? There was also a concern whether Concorde could even operate non-stop to Singapore, being right at the edge of its 4,000-mile range.

It switched instead to the newly developed Boeing 747, opting to follow the model of high capacity and lower fares through scale. This served it well. It operated the 747 right up to 2020 (and in the 1970s was the world’s only all-747 airline). Instead of the premium option of Concorde, it offered a top first class product, including a Captain Cook themed lounge on the 747 upper deck.

Farewell-Beoing-747
Qantas made a success out of the 747 instead, operating it for almost 50 years. Photo: Getty Images

Pan American World Airways (Pan Am)

There were three original launch customers for Concorde – BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways), Air France, and Pan Am. These three airlines all placed options for six aircraft each, in June 1963.

There was a keen interest in supersonic flight in the US. All the leading US airlines at the time placed options for Concorde. This is despite US manufacturer Boeing having its separate 2707 SST program, although several airlines also ordered this. This apparently caused some concern in the US. President Kennedy  said of the Pan Am order:

“This order involves hundreds of millions of dollars in balance of payments, which is going to sabotage a program to put the United States up in the lead in the 70s.”

Pan Am placed options for six aircraft in 1963 (three from Aerospatiale and three from BAC). It went on to place two more options (one from each manufacturer) in 1966.

It canceled all its options in January 1973. Its main problem was with the economics of operating Concorde (as reported by the New York Times). The increasing cost of the aircraft, coupled with rising oil prices, left it uncomfortable about the fares that would have to be charged.

The cancellation from one of the launch customers, and a major US airline, was not good news for the program. Manufacturers knew this and had tried hard to persuade Pan Am to stick with Concorde. In the months following Pan Am’s order cancellation, all other US-based airlines canceled their options. This included Continental, American Airlines, TWA and Braniff. United Airlines and Air Canada had already canceled.

Concorde Takeoff
Concorde could have developed very differently if US airlines had ordered it. Photo: Getty Images

Braniff International Airways

Braniff International Airways was a large US operator, flying domestically as well as within the Americas and (after 1970) to Europe and Asia. It ceased operations in 1982 amidst rising oil prices and growing competition after the deregulation in the US.

The airline placed options for three Concordes in 1966, but (along with all other US airlines) canceled these in 1973. It did, however, go on to operate Concorde domestically in the US, the only airline ever to do so.

Six years after canceling its Concorde options, in 1979, the airline was expanding and wanted to return to this prestigious idea to operate Concorde. The solution was an interchange arrangement with British Airways and Air France. Braniff operated Concorde domestically between Dallas Fort Worth and Washington Dulles airports (subsonic), with British Airways or Air France crews operating the transatlantic sector.

Braniff Concorde cooperation
Inauguration of the first flight Paris-Washington-Dallas in 1979. Photo: Getty Images

This was an impressive undertaking, as explained in full on website Heritage Concorde. Braniff crews were trained on Concorde (but British Airways still had a cockpit crew onboard as observers, for insurance purposes). US law also required the aircraft’s registration numbers to be changed for domestic flights. The cooperation, however, only lasted around one year.

Civil Aviation Administration of China

Another interesting option came from China, via the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). It placed two options in July 1972, and one more in August. It held out longer than most other airlines and did not cancel its last option until February 1980.

The deal was recalled in detail in a 2018 article in Asia Times. This would have been an interesting move, had it gone forward. Chinese aviation at the time was very limited, and the country was looking to introduce more long-haul and international routes. Concorde would have served premium routes, while also acting as a VIP transport for Chinese leaders. Officials were apparently impressed with the design and aerodynamics.

According to Asia Times, political and economic troubles finished off Concorde ambitions. CAAC was unable to make down payments to convert options to orders, and canceled options in late 1979 and early 1980.

Future of supersonic flight

With the Concorde program costing so much, and so many airlines canceling options for aircraft, the future was bleak for further supersonic developments. Concorde, of course, remained in service until 2003, and was, for some time, profitable to operate. There has been little appetite, however, for further development, both during Concorde’s service and after.

Concorde
Reducing demand (post 9/11) and its fatal crash in Paris proceeded the end of Concorde and supersonic flight. Photo: Getty Images

That may change though in the coming years. The Virgin Atlantic backed company, Boom, is currently developing the ‘Boom Overture – a Mach 2.2 aircraft seating 55 passengers. Virgin has announced it will reveal the first prototype, the XB-1, in October 2020.

Airline interest is already there for this. Virgin Atlantic and Japanese Airlines have placed options for aircraft, which may be flying as early as 2025.

Boom overture
XB-1 next to the bigger commercial Boom Overture. Photo: Boom Supersonic

Cost was a problem for Concorde, both in development and in the high ticket prices needed to operate it profitably. This is being addressed with the Boom Overture. The aircraft should cost $200 million each, roughly half the current price of the Boeing 777X. And, according to Blake Scholl, CEO of Boom Supersonic, the ticket price should be able to be comparable with current business class prices.

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