What Was The Problem With Concorde?

It had fewer pilots than the United States has had astronauts. Its staunch admirers say it was more advanced than Apollo 11. Perhaps no other aircraft silhouette is as recognizable as that of the Anglo-French commercial airliner the Concorde. So how come its operators decided to retire it, even though no supersonic successor was waiting in the wings?

BA concorde take off
The Concorde, iconic though it may be, had its fair share of challenges. Photo: Getty Images

Not the first supersonic airliner, but the most successful

Few aircraft are as iconic as the world’s second supersonic passenger jet. Although Concorde may have lost the supersonic race to the very similar looking Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144, the latter never took off as a commercial jetliner.

The Tu-144 suffered from a whole heap of failures, much due to the rush to beat its Anglo-French competitor. These resulted in it only ever completing 55 passenger flights, marred by problems such as depressurization, engine failures, and alarms that wouldn’t switch off.

While nothing was as high-profile as the spectacular crash at the Paris Air Show in 1973, it was still enough to send the plane into retirement with the same speed at which it flew.

Uncommonly for the aviation industry, the Concorde was retired without the launch of a successor model. Photo: Getty Images

Departure without successor

While the Concorde fared much better, remaining in passenger service for 27 years, it was not without its fair share of issues. Some of them resulted in the aircraft’s retirement by Air France on June 27th, 2003, and then by British Airways on October 24th that same year.

The airplane that had ushered in commercial supersonic flight and could fly from New York to London in under three hours exited the stage without any successor in its genre. So what were the problems that caused its operators to abandon their so-recognizable supersonic silhouette?

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The Anglo-French supersonic collaboration initially garnered a ton of interest from customers. Photo Getty Images

Development stages

When Concorde was being developed by a consortium of engineers from the UK’s British Aircraft Corporation, France’s Aérospatiale, and other companies assigned specific parts of the plane, it garnered a ton of interest and enthusiasm with airlines. Sixteen companies ordered more than 70 aircraft even before it was built. As we know, only two carriers ended up actually flying it over any long period of time.

One of the major blows to the Concorde’s orders was the decision that said it could not fly at its top speed over land due to the sonic boom, trailing behind the aircraft for 16 miles. This meant that it was mostly limited to routes over water. In turn, this basically meant it was restricted to transatlantic crossings, as it did not have the range to go transpacific.

Meanwhile, the jet’s development kept running over budget, with costs increasing at speeds fitting for the project. A planned $130 million ended up reaching $2.8 billion in development costs.

Sixteen companies ordered the Concorde before it was completed, among them TWA. Photo: Getty

Economics of operations

In the end, only 14 Concordes entered service; seven each for British Airways and Air France. Due to its high-profile features and the sense of exclusivity being a member of the supersonic flight club afforded, ticket sales took off, albeit at quite exorbitant prices. One-way tickets with BA from London to Washington Dulles in 1977 cost about the equivalent of today’s $3,200. By the late 1990s, one-way transatlantic fares had soared to $6,000.

When the Concorde was designed, jet-fuel was cheap. However, with the oil crisis of 1973 to 1974, the profit margins for the fuel-to-speed reliant aircraft quickly diminished. With a total passenger capacity of 100, this was not an airline’s dream plane for an era of higher fuel costs.

Getty Concorde in Riyadh
The Concorde was designed before the oil crisis and subsequent increase in jet-fuel costs. Photo: Getty Images

Safety rating and upgrades

There is no mentioning problems with the Concorde without talking about the crash of Air France Flight 4590 in July of 2000. Debris on the runway struck the left wing, creating a shock-wave that caused the unusually-full left fuel tank to rupture. A fire ensued, and multiple failures conspired to see the plane crash into a hotel in Gonesse, two minutes after take-off from Paris Charles De Gaulle. All 109 passengers and crew onboard perished, along with four people in the hotel.

Up until then, the aircraft had operated for nearly three decades without any crashes, deaths, or major injuries. Meanwhile, across all that time, it had had less than 80,000 take-offs and landings. This meant that the fatal crash of 2000 caused its safety record to drop precipitously, as this is measured by “hull losses” (when an airplane is damaged so badly it cannot fly again) per one million flights.

Customer confidence was shaken, and $93 million were spent on safety improvements following the accident. Increased maintenance costs on top of what was already the upkeep of an aging fleet, was a big part of rendering the Concorde financially unviable to operate.

The crash of AF4590 was not the cause of the jet’s retirement, but it did cause its safety rating to drop precipitously and its operators to spend millions on safety upgrades. Photo: Getty Images

Aging, inefficient fleet, and lack of trust

In the end, an aging fleet with high maintenance costs, a lack of trust from passengers following the AF4590 crash, and its economic inefficiency were to be the main contributors to the Concorde’s downfall.

While the plane may have been cramped, noisy, and expensive, it did have an air of mystery about it. Not to mention the allure of the exclusivity it afforded and the luxurious onboard service. But it was also a fantastic feat of engineering which is yet to be replicated.

However, the industry is inching its way back to supersonic, while smaller, more commercially viable models. Such as the Boom Supersonic Overture. The company just recently rolled out its demonstrator plane, the XB-1. Should the program not encounter problems, the plan is for the Overture, a 55-passenger Mach 2.2 jet, to launch sometime between 2025 and 2027.