Era of glamour travel ends with Concorde

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 12:00am

When flight BA002 touched down in London from New York this morning, it marked the end of a monumental chapter in the history of air travel. This was the final, breathtaking flight of Concorde - a superstar of the skies.

Looking like a giant white bird, the awe-inspiring delta-winged aircraft has, for more than 25 years, thrilled its exclusive passengers with flights at twice the speed of sound, flashing across the Atlantic in only 31/2 hours. First tested in 1969, the Anglo-French aircraft was a triumph of design and technology, a symbol of optimism and adventure. Sadly, it was also destined to become a commercial failure.

Concorde took the emerging air-travel industry, literally as well as metaphorically, to new heights. As the world's only supersonic passenger jet it could fly at 60,000 feet, on the fringes of the upper atmosphere, and at a speed of more than 2,000km/h. The flying time between Europe and the US was half that of other commercial aircrafts. The ultimate in luxury air travel - at least of the scheduled variety - it attracted a devoted band of enthusiastic travellers, including world leaders, royalty and many a pop star. Business executives were the most regular customers. Flying by Concorde became a status symbol and, over the years, about 2.5 million passengers have 'gone supersonic' on 50,000 flights.

But from the very beginning, the pitfalls were also apparent. Concorde's high performance meant high ticket prices, and each of the 14 planes in the fleet could carry only 100 passengers. The planes guzzled fuel like no other aircraft, consuming twice as much as a Boeing 747. Their maintenance costs were huge. And the noise they made - particularly the notorious supersonic boom - made Concorde an early victim of the environmental movement. The planes were permitted to reach high speeds only over water, and routes were limited mainly to London, Paris and New York.

Concorde, for all the glamour, romance and excitement it provided, was a commercial misfit. It looked like it belonged to the future - but it did not. The future of air travel lay in mass transportation - bigger planes carrying more passengers at lower cost and therefore at cheaper prices. This was recognised by big manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus. While the pursuit of supersonic passenger travel has continued, most projects have been scrapped in favour of efforts to make planes more cost-efficient. The terrible crash in 2000 sealed the fate of this prestigious project.

The thousands who turned out to witness the end of the historic final flight bear testimony to the wonder these beautiful aircraft continue to evoke. Concorde belongs to a bygone era, but will still be missed - except perhaps by those living under the flight path.