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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Flying Blind

But through a series of innovations in fuselage, wing, and engine design, British engineers met the challenges. Their wind tunnel tests and theoretical analyses showed that a commercial jet could be built to fly safely and comfortably at Mach 2, double the speed of sound, or even faster. The breakthroughs quickened the pace of the initiative, as work began on an actual blueprint for the jet. The project accelerated even further in late 1962, when the British Aircraft Corporation joined forces with France’s Sud Aviation (later renamed Aérospatiale) to manufacture medium- and long-range versions of an “SST,” a supersonic jet that would carry approximately 100 passengers. The engines would be supplied by the British, while the French would take on the majority of the work of constructing the body. The costs of the program would be shared by the governments of the two countries.

As the engineering sped forward, the market sent signals that seemed to confirm the commercial wisdom of the endeavor. By the end of 1963, Pan Am, American Airlines, Continental, and TWA had joined British Airways and Air France in taking options to purchase the planes. At the same time, the U.S. aviation industry announced plans to build its own SST to compete with the Anglo-French model. The public, too, seemed enamored of the program. When the first test flights were made in 1969 and 1970, the highways around airports were often jammed for hours as spectators tried to get a glimpse of the sleek new jet. Market research indicated strong demand for faster air travel — and a willingness to pay a premium for the privilege.

But hidden in all the excitement were some ominous signs. The cost of producing the jet had already gone far beyond the original budget. A small but growing band of environmentalists had emerged to protest the noise and pollution that would allegedly be produced by the plane. A nervous U.S. Congress cut off funding in 1971, and the Americans abandoned their SST. In 1973, an oil crisis sent gas costs skyrocketing, dramatically increasing the fuel-hungry plane’s operating costs. More troubling still, the demand for business travel had flattened, and the airlines had trouble filling the seats of their ever-expanding fleets of big subsonic jets. They began to slash their fares. When the Concorde made its maiden commercial flight on January 21, 1976, it entered a market that had changed drastically from the one that existed 20 years earlier when it was conceived.

The supersonic revolution never happened. Only 16 Concordes were ever sold, all to British Airways and Air France. The other airlines canceled their orders. Noise and other concerns limited the jet to just a few routes. Passengers found the interiors cramped. And high fuel and other costs doomed the plane to marginal profits or, more typically, outright losses. On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed during takeoff, killing everyone on board and resulting in a temporary grounding of all SSTs. On September 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon devastated demand for air travel. On April 10, 2003, the end came abruptly, as British Airways and Air France simultaneously announced that they would retire their Concorde fleets. On October 24, 2003, the jet flew for the last time, and a month later many of its parts were auctioned off at Christie’s in Paris. The Concorde had become just another flashy product that had failed to find a market.

Unforeseen Hazards
The brief history of the Concorde encapsulates the hopes and disappointments that so frequently characterize attempts at launching radically new products and services. The story also reveals many of the reasons that seemingly winning innovations can go awry.

 
 
 
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