The Story Behind Qantas’ Concorde Order

As we all know, Concorde was only ever operated by British Airways and Air France. But many other airlines had an interest in the project, and 18 placed options for Concorde. Qantas was amongst these, with options for four aircraft. Things changed, though, as this article explores, and Qantas never took delivery.

Concorde Takeoff
Qantas never operated Concorde but had strong ambitions at one point. Photo: Getty Images

Options for Concorde and the Boeing 2707

In the 1960s, Qantas had a keen interest in supersonic travel. It placed options for Concorde in March 1964, for four aircraft.

But Concorde was not the only supersonic project at the time. In the US, Boeing had its own SST (Supersonic Transport) project, working on the Boeing 2707 aircraft. Qantas also placed options for six of these aircraft.

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

An amazing journey

Qantas planned to operate Concorde on its flagship Sydney to London’ Kangaroo Route.’ This would have been an impressive 13 and a half hour flight, including refueling stops in Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, and Cairo.

Qantas explained the impact of this in a description in their Roo Tales blog on Qantas News Room:

“Our initial concept for a supersonic service on the Kangaroo Route had customers eating breakfast shortly after leaving Sydney and arriving at lunchtime in London, all on the same day.”

Of course, it was not just London that could benefit from this. Flights to Auckland could take less than an hour, and only around three hours to get over to Singapore.

Getty Concorde in Singapore Airlines livery
British Airways and Singapore Airlines jointly operated Concorde to Singapore, but not Sydney. Photo: Getty Images

Canceling its Concorde options

Despite the possibilities for a fast route between Sydney and London, Qantas never took up its Concorde options (and its Boeing 2707 options were lost when the program was canceled).

Qantas, of course, was not the only airline to cancel options. A total of 18 airlines placed options for almost 100 aircraft, with all but British Airways (BOAC at the time) and Air France canceling them.

IranAir Concorde
IranAir was another airline that seriously considered Concorde. This is a mockup of what an IranAir Concorde could have looked like. Original photo: SpaceAero2 via Wikimedia

This was not an instant decision for Qantas. It was not until June 1973 that Qantas canceled its options and dropped its supersonic plans, almost 10 years after taking them up.

This was not through a lack of effort from Concorde’s manufacturers. The aircraft flew to Sydney, and there were many attempts to convince Qantas of its potential (including its ability to operate alongside slower, higher capacity aircraft). And Executive Traveller reports how in 1973, following the cancelation of options from all US airlines, British Aircraft Corporation even tried to threaten that options would be canceled if orders were not made.

BA concorde take off
Only British Airways and Air France took delivery of Concorde Photo: Getty Images

Why did Qantas cancel?

There were various factors involved in Qantas’ decision to drop Concorde. These included:

Delays, and problems with supersonic projects

This was an issue for all airlines, not just Qantas. Supersonic flight was new, and project difficulties did not help confidence. The US SST project was canceled (amidst rising costs), and Concorde ran significantly over budget with added concern over the final price and operating expense for airlines. And to make it worse, the other developed supersonic aircraft, the Russian Tupolev Tu-144 crashed during air show demonstrations in 1971.

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

Concerns over the sonic boom and environmental impact

These issues were just as much of a concern as they would be today. There were early issues in the US with this, resulting in restrictions at JFK and other overland routes. Only operating over-water supersonic routes would have been a significant issue for Qantas’ plans. Qantas was also concerned about noise pollution at Australian airports and the impact of high altitude flights on the ozone layer.

Uncertainties over passenger desire

To make Concorde a success, passengers had to pay a premium for the experience. With the possibilities of spacious first class, with onboard lounges on the 747 becoming a possibility, would customers pay much more for just the speed? A strong indication of Qantas’ fear of this came from CEO Bert Ritchie, who, after touring the aircraft in Sydney, questioned whether passengers would “fancy flying to Europe in something the size of a London Tube train carriage.”

Qantas-Boeing-747-History
The 747 offered a more luxurious experience than Concorde. This is the upper deck Captain Cook Lounge. Photo: Qantas

Limited scheduling of flights

With only four aircraft, Qantas would likely only be able to serve the Sydney to London route three times a week. By the early 1970s, daily flights were already on offer. The time saving on Concorde may have been significant, but the lack of frequency wold offset this to some extent.

Concerns over operating to Singapore

The final straw came following concerns that a fully loaded aircraft would not be able to fly between Sydney and Singapore without refueling. According to website Heritage Concorde, engineers insisted that Concorde would offer a range of 4,000 miles, but Qantas was concerned about this in practice on a 3,939-mile route.

Switching to the 747 instead

As an alternative to supersonic travel, new possibilities were offered by high capacity aircraft. Instead of focussing on premium travel, at high speed and high cost, Qantas (along with many other airlines) would concentrate instead on lowering prices through scale.

Boeing, of course, moved away from its SST program and focussed on developing the 747. Qantas had seen the potential of this and did something similar.

747 Qantas Getty
Alan Terrel, former Qantas jet base chief of operations, with a 747 in 1983. Photo: Getty Images

The 747 changed how the airline operates. It used this long-haul heavyweight for passenger and cargo operations globally and became the only all-747 operating airline in the world. It, of course, later introduced other aircraft (the 767 came first). But the 747 would serve Qantas well, operating for nearly 50 years, with the last 747-400 retiring only in July 2020.

What do you think about Qantas’ supersonic ambitions? Would it have made sense for it to operate Concorde? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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