The Story Behind Pan Am’s Concorde Order

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The Concorde was a revolutionary aircraft and the first civilian supersonic transport. Yet, only European carriers British Airways and Air France operated the type. What happened to Pan Am’s options for ten faster-than-sound aircraft? Let’s explore this little-known nugget of history.

Concorde Takeoff
What was the Pan Am Concorde? Photo: Getty Images

Why did Pan Am want the aircraft?

Pan Am believed that supersonic was the future of aviation. After all, just as jet engines had changed how passengers traveled across the Atlantic, so would too the Concorde. Thus in 1963, Pan Am would option the aircraft and become the third airline to have the plane on its order book.

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We can’t say for sure where Pan Am planned to deploy the Concorde, but likely they would have used it to cross to Europe (the famous London to New York route).

The Concorde order wasn’t without controversy. President JFK was apparently blindsided by the deal. He said that the US was just about to announce its own supersonic transport the very next day.

“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,” said Kennedy of the Pan Am order.

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Pan Am knew about the new American SST program and decided to order the Concorde anyway. This did not please those who were in power at the time. You can listen to the phone calls here.

Pan Am 747
Pan Am was one of the original launch customers for Concorde, but canceled its options in 1973 and never took delivery of an aircraft. Photo: Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia

What were Pan Am’s options?

Pan Am would go on to order a fleet of Concordes in two distinct flavors.

  • The first was an order in 1963 with three from Aerospatiale and another three from BAC. They would also reserve two options (one from each).
  • The second order in 1966 was for two more optioned aircraft – one from BAC & one from Aerospatiale.

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What happened to its Concorde order?

In 1973, the airline made moves to cancel its Concorde order. It claimed that aircraft had become increasingly expensive (rising from under $20 million per plane to well over $45 million in 1970 dollars). Plus, the plane wasn’t attractive in a world of rising oil prices compared to existing craft like the Boeing 747 (the Concorde burned twice to three times more fuel than the 747).

The airline commented these shortcomings to the New York Times, saying that it would need to employ “substantially higher fares than today’s,” and that the Concorde did not meet “future requirements as the company now sees them.”

The Concorde team would spend three weeks arguing with Pan Am, trying to convince the airline that the order was solid. The case was made that the airline only had to fill 37 seats in an all‐first‐class cabin of 108 to earn positive revenue. However, airline analysts in the United States found the figures to be “extremely unconvincing and based on assumptions they thought highly optimistic, if not impossible.”

It could be said that Pan Am walking away from the Concorde signaled other airlines to lose faith in the project, and ultimately kill faster-than-sound travel for the next fifty years.

What do you think? Should have Pan Am have bought the Concorde? Let us know in the comments.

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