From January 21, 1976 to October 24, 2003 you fly from NYC to London in 3.5 hours or less. Today, it takes around 8 hours to make that same trip. Seems backwards, doesn’t it?
The 3.5-hour flight available from NYC to London for almost 27 years was made possible by the Concorde:
The Concorde was a supersonic commercial jet invented via a joint collaboration between the French and British governments in the late 1970’s. The fleet of 14 jets flown by British Airways and Air France represent the first and only era of commercially available supersonic travel. The Concorde was the Porsche 911 Turbo of commercial airliners – a sleek and powerful speed machine that symbolized innovation, class, and glamor. The jet was 202 feet long with a wingspan on 84 feet. It flew at speeds greater than Mach 2 (twice as fast as the speed of sound) and had an average cruising altitude of 60,000 feet. It had a ‘drooping’ nose that would adjust it’s angle compensate for a high angle of attack during takeoff and landing, and an iconic wing design referred to as ‘ogovial-delta’. A Concorde seated 100 passengers – 40 in the front cabin and 60 in the rear. Given a round trip cost of up to $18,260 per seat in today’s dollars, Concorde clientele were the most elite tier of travelers – and were catered to with an end-to-end luxury experience. Concorde cabins were filled with a mix of international businesspeople willing to pay for the practical benefits of time-bending speeds, and wealthy individuals willing to splurge for free-flowing champagne and caviar while overlooking the curvature of the earth’s surface. With twice a day service from New York to London, it was not uncommon for business travelers to take day trips and return home in time for dinner – when flying westward, arriving before the time the plane took off given the five hour time difference.
The Concorde was considered a miracle of engineering, and deemed by most to be the “the airliner of the future.” However, despite decades of advances in aerospace technology, commercial planes today are flying at the same speeds that they did in the 1960’s. I’m not aware of another example of the world going backwards on an technological advancement like that – in a sense it would be like us today reverting back to black and white TV or flip phones. Given our world is running at a faster pace than ever before, why aren’t we making it smaller by cutting international travel time in half with commercial supersonic flight?
The story of the Concorde’s demise is a series of unfortunate events – but ultimately, the decision to discontinue the plane came down to the economics. The beginning of the end was on July 25th, 2000 when a Concorde departing from Paris crashed during take off and resulted in the death of 113 people. Concorde was grounded until November of 2001, and returned to the depressed airline industry only for a brief period until offically retired in 2003. Key challenges included economies of scale, noise levels, fuel requirements, high operational and maintenance costs, and environmental concerns. The fleet of 14 Concords, carrying only 100 passengers per flight, could not distribute the operational price tag like traditional airliners could. The supersonic boom created when breaking through the sound barrier was so loud that it limited flights to above the ocean – and fuel requirements limited it’s range primarily to trans-Atlantic flights. Additionally, the Concorde was such a gas-guzzler that margins were especially vulnerable to fluctuations in fuel price. The plane had notoriously high operational and maintenance costs due to demand for specialized labor and parts, and significant controversy was brewing over of the potential environmental impacts of the Concorde’s high flight pattern on the ozone. Despite the many achievements of the Concorde, the money wasn’t there to compensate for where it fell short.
Concorde is both a relic of the past and a vision of the future
– Washington Post
Today, 14 years after the Concords last flight, a few entrepreneurs are betting that advances in technology and increased international travel will allow them to resurrect supersonic commercial travel. The start-up is called Boom Technology – it’s headquartered in Centennial, Colorado and on March 22nd of last month raised a series A funding round of $33M.
“Boom was founded on the philosophy that we need to overcome challenges of supersonic passenger flight, not surrender to them. Our vision is to make the world more local.”
Boom is aiming to bring supersonic travel mainstream by the early 2020’s with a 45-seat aircraft that can fly up to Mach 2.2 (1,451 mph). The Company claims that the price of a ticket will be comparable to a business class seat on any other airliner today – somewhere around $5,000. Boom is engineering a radical update to the Concorde -they’ve partnered with Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing division called Spaceship co. for engineering, design, and flight-test support services. According to simulations to-date, Boom claims its design is quieter and 30% more efficient than the Concorde. The jet is designed to fly on three-engine configuration instead of the two-engine industry standard, and uses a carbon-fiber composite frame instead of aluminum to make it lighter and faster. Although Boom is sure to face some major hurdles in the years ahead, it seems those in the aviation industry almost unanimously agree that it’s only a matter of time until we will overcome the economic and technological challenges of supersonic travel. Hopefully in the not so distant future we’ll be flying across the Atlantic in less than 3.5 hours while enjoying view from 60,000 feet up and few glasses of champagne.