Why Was Concorde Given An Early Retirement?

It has been over half a century since Concorde took its first flight. Despite expectations to change the landscape of aviation, only 14 of the supersonic jets conducted commercial operations. The last of these was retired in October 2003, 34 years after the aircraft type’s founding.

Concorde Takeoff
It has been 17 years since the last Concorde service was operated. Photo: Getty

Record-breaking feats

The fastest transatlantic crossing was conducted by a Concorde jet on February 7th, 1996. The plane flew from New York to London in under two hours and 53 minutes. With so much flight time being saved with the aircraft, it can be surprising to learn that the supersonic travel such as this didn’t stand the test of time.

Ultimately, these extraordinary abilities came at a price. According to The Telegraph, the initial development costs were around £1.134 billion ($1.35 billion), which was funded by the governments of the United Kingdom and France.

Once the jets were in the hands of British Airways and Air France, they were able to maintain a healthy income stream for a while. Generally, fares were around 30 times greater than the cheapest fees for the era. Ultimately, each flight only needed to be half full to break even.

Concorde BA
Concorde’s pointy nose was one of its many standout physical features. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

21st-century woes

However, on 25th July 2000, Air France Flight 4590 heading for New York ran over debris during takeoff at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

According to iNews, an investigation concluded that the debris was a fragment of a metal strip that had fallen from another plane. This punctured one of the jet’s tires. This exploded and hit a fuel tank, which instantly ignited a fire, causing the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.

Ultimately, the incident resulted in 113 fatalities. Following the accident, all Concorde planes were grounded for almost a year. During this time, losses started to mount for operators with their temporarily redundant aircraft undergoing vigorous maintenance. During this time, safety improvements were made such as Kevlar-lined fuel tanks and upgraded electronics.

Air France Flight 4590
The Air France Flight 4590 tragedy damaged Concorde’s operations. Photo: Getty Images

The final push

However, with the bad press that followed the accident, the carriers were not making back the money spent on the modifications. Additionally, 9/11 happened in the year that followed. These attacks had massively lowered the demand for a premium first class experience. Costs were continuing to mount and the airlines had to write off their debt before they doubled within a few years.

Altogether, the 2000 crash was a big blow for Concorde but 9/11 was the finishing punch. Two critical aviation incidents sandwiched the great expenditures made to safeguard the model.

Concorde was one of many aviation projects that could not survive in the years that followed 9/11. With only a small segment of passengers being able to afford flights on the planes and not many carriers operating them, there was not enough diversification in revenue sources.

Concorde interior
The interior of each Concorde plane had a classy finish. Photo: Jeroen Stroes Aviation Photography

A return for supersonic travel?

Since the retirement of the Concorde, the world has gone on to be more connected than ever. There are countless commercial and private services that have emerged specifically designed to help connect passengers as quickly as possible.

Several airlines have ramped up their transatlantic routes, along with new services to emerging economic hubs in the likes of South Africa and India. This has benefited travelers looking for a swift journey while on business or seeing family.

Therefore, if the balance is right, supersonic travel could see a comeback. Especially with firms such as Aerion investing heavily in the development of ambitious jets such as the AS2.

What do you think of the rise and fall of Concorde? Do you have any fond memories traveling on one of the jets? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.