Supersonic Bust: The Story of the Concorde

Faster than the speed of sound comes the plane of the future. It has cost at least fifteen times the original estimates. It is described as a “commercial disaster" by a review committee of one of the countries that built it. It is besieged by the environmentalists. The Concorde is the benighted offspring of Anglo-French diplomacy and once-and-future dreams of glory in the skies. Now its builders are trying to keep it from crashing in a sea of red ink.

The supersonic Concorde has suffered a bewildering year. Last February U.S. Transportation Secretary William Coleman decided to allow the supersonic plane into Dulles and Kennedy airports for a sixteen-month trial period. But then the New York Port Authority banned Concorde for six months so that it could monitor the results of Concorde’s noise tests as it flew in and out of Washington. British Airways and Air France, the only two airlines so far to have bought the plane, at first appealed the ban. then decided to postpone their suit until New York announced its decision — expected momentarily. Jimmy Carter won big headlines in Britain for his opposition to the plane during his presidential campaign: soon afterwards he “clarified" his position by saying that a final verdict would depend on the noise and pollution tests. British Airways and Air France had hoped to be living Concorde into Kennedy by Christmas; recently they have been saying that if New York approves the plane, they will begin operations by the spring.

No other plane has had to undergo such preliminary tribulations. It was an unusual experience for British politicians and officials to participate in the rough-and-tumble of American political lobbying, or take part in a rowdy debate with Concorde’s opponents, as they did when they came to Washington for Mr. Coleman’s hearings last January, The British pitched their arguments before Coleman at a modest level. Gerald Kaufman. Harold Wilson’s former press aide, now Britain’s minister of state for industry, explained that they merely sought four journeys a day to New York and two to Washington. All that they wanted was for Concorde to be given “a chance.”

What Kaufman and his officials meant was the chance to save face. Already Britain and France have spent £1.46 billion ($2.3 billion) to reach this stage (and a London political economist has recently argued that the true cost is roughly three times this amount).1 As Kaufman knew, it is impossible for the two countries to recover any but a tiny part of this staggering total. It may be true that Concorde’s progenitors spoke of a payload of 150 passengers, while Concorde has been flying to Washington this winter with a limit of seventy; it may be true that they spoke of operating costs “comparable with” other planes, while it costs three times as much per mile to carry a passenger in Concorde as in its subsonic rivals. But let us fly into New York, the British pleaded, and we can pretend that Concorde is not the most disastrous investment decision Britain has made since the war.

Concorde is already, in effect, twenty years old. The decision to begin the supersonic project was made in 1956. the year of Suez, Britain’s last great imperialist gesture. It was a time when Britain was still enjoying postwar expansion, and had not yet had to face the economic consequences of the loss of empire. It was a time of the technological imperative, when the first suggestions that technology did not of itself represent progress were only just being made. And it was a time when Britain still believed that she had the capacity and expertise to rank with the world’s major industrial powers.

For British aviation, the most traumatic event after the war was the disaster of the Comet. Early in 1954 two Comets exploded over the Mediterranean. killing all on board. The Comet was grounded for two years, and by the time it was ready to fly again, the 707 and the DC-8 had built up an unassailable lead.

It fell to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. a country town thirty miles southwest of London, to carry out the painful examination of the Comet crashes. Farnborough eoneluded that the explosions had been caused by metal fatigue at the Comets’ windows. Faults in the manufacturers’ pre-production tests had led them to underestimate the effects of pressurization.

It was from the experts at Farnborough, committed to technological advance, that the pressures for a supersonic project now came. One of the most important characters in the story of Concorde is Morien Morgan, a short, ebullient Welshman, who nowy as Sir Morien, is master of Downing College, Cambridge. In 1956 Morgan was Farnborough’s deputy director, and ideally placed to give the project its initial momentum. Later he moved into senior posts at the Ministry of Aviation headquarters in London, enabling him to keep the project on course. His enthusiasm and his advocacy were to prove vital.

One reason that Concorde is flying today becomes clear when one talks to Sir Morien. It stems from the competitiveness and envy toward the United States that grew out of decisions made in the heat of World War II. When America entered the war the British agreed to concentrate on building fighters and bombers, leaving transport planes to the United States; in 1945 the United States was much better placed to move back into civilian transport planes. “That was a bit heartbreaking,” says Sir Morien. But Concorde, he adds, enabled Britain “to look the Americans firmly in the eye again.”

In fact, the main reason Britain left transport planes to the United States was that the United States was well ahead in the field anyway. In 1941 the civilian Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 were already flying and the Lockheed Constellation was well under way. Britain’s attempts to get back into the civilian market were painful; even before the Comet, flop followed flop.

In October 1956, largely at Farnborough’s prompting, a meeting was held at the Aviation Ministry headquarters in London, attended by the heads of Britain’s nine airframe and four engine companies, and by officials from Farnborough. including Morien Morgan. The Ministry’s permanent secretary, Sir Cyril Musgrave, chaired the meeting, and as he recalls, the choice presented to it was stark. “All the major airlines were buying the 707 or the DC-8 and there was no point in developing another subsonic plane. We felt we had to go above the speed of sound, or leave it.”

The manufacturers at the meeting were dubious: their initial attitude, says Sir Cyril, was, “It’s a bright idea as long as the government pays for it.”The British government had indeed demonstrated that it was prepared to underwrite the mistakes of the British aviation industry, having paid out over $140 million by then for its various flops. The Treasury was now showing increasing opposition to financing aviation schemes, but that, for Morgan and other supersonic supporters, would all be part of the struggle.

On November 5, 1956, at Farnborough. the first meeting of the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, known as STAC, was held. On it were representatives of government, business, the airlines, and Farnborough: its chairman was Morien Morgan. The committee’s goal, if not its formal brief, was to produce a report demonstrating that a supersonic passenger plane was both feasible and desirable.

It succeeded in its first objective with a large slice of good luck. Farnborough had already made a preliminary examination of the problems of designing a supersonic airliner. As Morgan later commented, “Only silly aeroplanes emerged.” The one plane that would fly nonstop from London to New York — Mo STAC, the prime route—would carry fifteen passengers and cost five times as much to operate as existing subsonics. When STAC began its work, it had no clear idea of how it was going to build the plane. But working at Farnborough at that time was one of the brilliant German aerodynamicists for whose services Britain and the United States had competed in 1945: Dietrich Küchemann. It was Küchemann’s work which made Concorde possible. In 1957 he declared that a supersonic passenger plane with a thin delta wing was “just possible.”

Early in 1959, after a battery of tests had been completed, the STAC report was ready. Not surprisingly, it recommended that the supersonic project proceed. It was forwarded to the Ministry’s controller of aircraft with a letter, written by Morien Morgan, of extraordinary enthusiasm and urgency, and with none of the hesitations of Küchemann’s basic aerodynamic verdict, none of the social implications of building a supersonic plane for an elite dozen or so passengers, expressed.

Morgan wrote: “We feel it right to proceed with the two supersonic aircraft outlined above, and we must emphasize that a decision not to start detailed work fairly soon on the transatlantic aircraft would be in effect to opt altogether out of the long-range supersonic transport field. Since we would never regain a competitive position this could have a profound effect on the pattern of our Aircraft Industry and on our position as a leading aeronautical power.”

Seventeen years after it was produced, and even though the plane it recommended has now been built, the STAC report remains officially secret. There is no Freedom of Information Act in Britain; secrecy and anonymity remain fundamental to the way government decisions are reached. Had the issues involved been discussed and examined in public, it is doubtful whether Britain and France would ever have built Concorde. But the very first time the British Parliament was permitted to debate the project was in December 1962—one month after an Anglo-French treaty had committed Britain irrevocably to the plane. In the United States, public debate on the Boeing SST led to its cancellation in 1971.

But why should the British government withhold the STAC report even now? The answer can only be that there is considerable embarrassment at the report’s estimates of the costs of the supersonic plane, and of its commercial possibilities.

STAC did say that costs were “difficult to estimate at this stage,” but promptly overrode that caveat by stating that they would be in the range of £59 million to £95 million ($165 million to $266 million), depending on range, speed, and payload. (At that time two versions were being considered: a Mach 1.2 plane carrying 100 people for 1500 miles, and a Mach 1.8 plane carrying 150 passengers from London to New York.) Even if the top figure of £95 million ($266 million) is taken, and Professor Henderson’s more pessimistic formulation is ignored, STAC was off by a factor of around 15. The British government’s latest figures of development costs, shared between Britain and France, are £1154 million. To that must be added production costs and losses sustained through operating Concorde by British Airways and Air France, bringing the total to around £1460 million.

STAC’s optimism over costs was matched only by its optimism over the plane’s market prospects. It concluded that by 1970 there would be a world market for 150 to 500 supersonic planes. Conjoining the two equations. Morgan estimated that a supersonic plane could recover its entire research and development costs on just thirty sales.

There is nothing exceptional in cost estimates being wrong; one American study has shown that estimates for military projects have been too low by an average factor of 6.5. But in the case of Concorde more than mere miscalculation is involved. Dietrich Küchemann died in March 1976. Shortly before, he described how the head of Farnborough’s aerodynamic department, Philip Hufton, sat down and invented the figures. '"It was simply done on the basis of let me see. what will the politicians stand,”Küchemann said. He added: “In the whole STAC report, those estimates are the only thing that are rubbish. I have a very bad conscience about that.”

With the presentation of the STAC report. a powerful mix of brilliant aerodynamics and disreputable propaganda, the political battle over Concorde was joined. The British Conservative party had been in power since 1951. Churchill had been prime minister then, followed, in 1955, by Anthony Eden; Eden had departed after Suez. His successor. Harold Macmillan, was represented as part of the “meritocratic” strain of modern conservatism, but his Cabinet still contained such members of the old guard as Lords Salisbury and Kilmuir. And the story of Concorde was to demonstrate that the age of irrational decision-making was not yet past.

file first minister of aviation to take up Concorde was Aubrey Jones, a young economist who at once foresaw the inevitable Treasury opposition to the project. He proposed to his officials that he should seek a European partner for the venture as a way of sharing the costs and pre-empting Treasury objections. Jones was also one of the group of Conservatives who had been disappointed when Britain had not joined the European Common Market, formed in 1957. To him and others like him, a joint venture on so major a project offered some kind of “surrogate” for entry. Jones made the first tentative proposals when he met the French transport minister at the Paris air show in the summer of 1959, and also asked two British firms to carry out preliminary studies on the designs suggested by STAC.

In October 1959, the Conservatives won their third successive general election and Jones was replaced at the Ministry of Aviation by Duncan Sandys, a member of Churchill’s wartime Cabinet who had organized Britain’s defenses against Hitler’s flying bombs and rockets. Sandys was now charged with organizing the British aircraft industry into more compact and—it was hoped more efficient groups. Britain’s thirteen aircraft firms dwindled to four: on the airframe side, the British Aircraft Corporation and Haw ker-Siddelev; on the engine side. Bristol-Siddeley and Rolls-Royce.

Sandys made a tour of European capitals— Rome. Bonn, Paris—in search of a partner for the supersonic project. The strongest interest came from France. Sandys now presented the scheme to the Cabinet, adopting the arguments Morien Morgan had used to persuade the Ministry itself in 1956. If Britain was to continue as a power in world aviation, Sandys told the Cabinet, it had to build a supersonic. “‘We have to go on,” Sandys said, “‘or opt out.”

Sandys left the Ministry, having completed reorganization, in July 1960. to be succeeded by Peter Thorneycroft. a former chancellor of the exchequer. But continuity was ensured by the presence at the Ministry of Geoffrey Rippon. a voting Conservative MP who served as the minister’s parliamentary secretary. Rippon’s role was crucial. He was another pro-European, deeply committed to the supersonic project, who formed an alliance with Morien Morgan and a handful of other senior officials to see the project through. As chairman of a small steering committee at the Ministry, Rippon accepted that it had two tasks. The first was to keep the project from Treasury scrutiny for as long as possible; the second was to ensure French cooperation.

Rippon had total disdain for the Treasury. “They have no concept of the national interest,”he declared. “They judge everything with the narrowest possible perception.”To prevent the Treasury from learning of the project’s progress, he decreed that as little as possible should be committed to paper. “We were small, informal, united,” he said later; “a band of brothers.”

But Rippon’s most decisive single action concerned the STAC report. When completed, it bore the melodramatic imprint. “Confidential: UK Eyes Only.” Though it remains secret in the UK today, Rippon gave a copy of the report to the French.

The STAC report was handed over, on Rippon’s authority, in the summer of 1960. Containing the aerodynamic secret of Concorde, it convinced the French that the project was feasible; and if the French were to come in on the deal, they had to learn the secret at some time. But the delivery of the report two years before the deal was formally agreed upon provided the project’s supporters in Britain with the argument that if Britain decided not to build the plane, France would go ahead anyway.

Peter Thorneycroft—even while his subordinate Rippon was vigorously pursuing the French did make one effort to cushion Britain from the financial implications of the project, which he was certain would far exceed the STAC estimates. Better than a partnership with France. Thorneycroft judged, would be one with the United States. Britain would dearie have only junior status, but the Financial burden would be eased, and there would be an assured market among the American airlines.

In 1961, Thorneycroft discussed collaboration with American officials in Washington; both they and Boeing visited the Ministry of Aviation in London. Eventually the Americans turned the idea down, and one of their negotiators later told a British official that they doubted whether the British plan for a Mach 2 aircraft in conventional metal was technically feasible, and whether the proposed payload, in the 125 150 range, would be economic. As it turned out. the American solution proved even more dubious: Boeing aimed to build a titanium passenger plane carrying 250 people at almost Mach 3, but the company’s inability to design an economic version led eventually to cancellation of the SST in 1971. In 1961, however, their decision to turn down the British proposals, and to continue with their own research, helped create a sense of urgency which Concorde’s protagonists skillfully turned to their own advantage. Thorneycroft himself nowlooked again to France.

British manufacturers, meanwhile, had been continuing technical discussions with British government officials, and with manufacturers in France. I hese discussions were shot through with confusions whose resolution was to prove most costh.

First there was the airframe. In 1960 the British government had given the new British Aircraft Corporation a $1 million contract for a feasibility study. BAC was also asked to have informal talks with the Toulouse firm Sud-Aviation. which was drawing up its own preliminary plans. Sir Archibald Russell. BAC ‘s chief supersonic designer, visited his old friend Pierre Satre, Sud’s technical director. Russell’s first approach was cautious. Cost savings could be achieved, he argued, if each company built separate aircraft but shared the main components, such as the engine, and the hydraulic and electrical systems. But this was not enough for the politicians: the Ministry of Aviation told the two companies to amalgamate their work completely.

The problem was that the two companies favored entirely different versions. BAC was pursuing the Mach 2 transatlantic plane that had been the rationale behind STAC; Sud preferred a medium-range plane (which STAC had also considered). No politician at that time was ready to make a decision.

A bitter commercial battle was also being fought over the choice of engine. The contenders were the two new British engine firms, Bristol-Siddeley and Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce showed considerable realism toward the problem of noise. In a two-and-ahalf-inch-thick report on the engine requirements. Rolls pointed out that the New York Port Authority had already introduced a takeoff level of 112 Perceived Noise Decibels (PNdB), today’s limit at Kennedy. and that Heathrow was considering stricter limits. Rolls concluded: “The next generation of subsonics is being designed to be appreciably quieter—of the order of 100 PNdB and this is the order to which the supersonic should be designed th roughout.”

Rolls’s honesty did not win them the contract, and thev were politically outflanked by Bristol-Siddeley. whose managing director. Sir Arnold Hall, had realized at an early stage that the only way the project would go ahead was as a joint production. He paid a discreet visit to the french aero-engine company SNECMA and suggested a deal: when the governments came to consider who should build the engine, Bristol and SNECMA were able to point to the progress toward collaboration thev had already made. The engine chosen was a “civilianized" version of the Olympus, which Bristol had been developing for the multirole combat plane the TSR-2 (eventually canceled bv the Labour government in 1965. after $532 million had been spent).

It is clear that the project’s supporters had little to contribute to the noise problem, beyond optimism. Morien Morgan declared in I960: ‘The prize is a golden one. We will bring tremendous research efforts to bear to the noise problem.”But the Olympus engine was alreadv quite old: the first version had been used in an RAE Canberra in 1952. And all attempts to reduce noise were entirely outweighed bv the continued increase in power required as the airframe makers tried to extricate a feasible aircraft from the confusion over what they were building.

In the political sphere the project was gaining momentum. In July 1962. Thornevcroft was replaced as the minister responsible by Julian Amerv. the man who finally signed the Anglo-French treaty. Amery. tire tourth oi the ministers to handle the project, was the most passionate in its favor. He was ambitious, politically adroit, and a gambler: three characteristics which were to see the project through. Soon after becoming minister. Amery sent his new parliamentary secretary at the Ministry. Basil de Ferranti whose family made electronic aviation equipment to Earn borough to assess the project. Ferranti remembers being impressed by the argument that the plane would sell “either none at all or a hell of a lot.”

The attitude he and Amerv took was: “It is a gamble. But if we can do it with the French, it will halve the ante. So let’s have a go.”

By 1962, too. the project had become a vital part of the Foreign Office’s strategy for securing entry to the Common Market, which Harold Macmillan had decided earlier that year to pursue. A co-production deal was important as an earnest of Britain’s European intentions, and the project demonstrated the kind of industrial expertise Britain would contribute to the European community.

But, in late summer. Britain’s negotiations in Brussels, led by Edward Heath, became sticky: the French were beginning to raise the objections that were to sink Britain’s application. Then, from Brussels, came requests for positive movement on the supersonic project. But the two airframe companies, BAC and Sud, had not yet decided what sort of plane they were building. In September they were directed to produce an agreed-upon version; the two chief designers spent one day doing just that. In October the briefest of outline specifications, contained in fourteen pages, was delivered to the Ministry of Aviation. For Amery, it was enough.

As Treasury opposition became more forthright, Amery’s footwork became niftier. First he said that France was insisting on concluding the agreementotherwise she would proceed on her own. (In fact it is extremely doubtful whether France had the capability to do so; and where the pressure was coming from is equally unclear, as France did not even have a government at the time.)

Then, early in November, Amery presented the draft of the agreement he was proposing to sign. Both the British Treasury and the French Finance Ministry were appalled to discover in the agreement that if one country should pull out of the project unilaterally, it would have to bear all development costs incurred by both countries.

Amerv received delegations from both ministries asking that the offending clauses be removed. He told the French not to W’orry unduly: the treaty was so worded only because British resolve in such matters had been known to waver. The next day he told the British Treasury that the clauses were necessary because the French were not trustworthy, and that the French had already agreed to them anyway.

On November 29, in London. Amery. together with the French ambassador to Britain, signed the treaty. “This aircraft,”Amery told the House of Commons that afternoon, “has every chance of securing a substantial part of the world market for supersonic airliners. This is a chance that will not return.”

The first setback to all the hopes vested in the supersonic project came six weeks later. On January 14, 1963. General de Gaulle told a packed press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris that Britain was not yet ready to enter the Common Market. But. the General added pointedly. nothing would prevent continued cooperation between Britain and France—“as the two countries have proved by deciding to build together the supersonic aircraft. Concorde.”The project, he said, would be a guarantee of Britain’s sincerity in any later application she might wish to make. In one brilliant stroke the General denied Britain the Concorde project’s political goal and ensured that Concorde nonetheless would go ahead.

The subsequent history of Concorde is riddled with similar disappointments. The deficiencies in the joint design produced, under political pressure, by BAC and Sud became quickly apparent. In 1963 it was discovered that the plane would fall short of New York by 500 miles; the first major redesign took place, and so did the first official reappraisal of costs, raised to £275 million, compared with the maximum estimate of £95 million the STAC report had made. There was a further redesign in 1965; by 1966. the costs were given as £450 million ($1.26 billion).

As work progressed, the very fine margins of the original concept—which Dietrich Kiichemann had judged “just possible”—became increasingly clear. The payload allowed for represented only 6 percent of the plane’s overall weight compared with 12 percent for a Boeing 707 or a VC-10 and each time design snags increased the weight of other equipment, that percentage was further reduced. The original payload spoken of had been 150 passengers. but this was soon reduced to 130: by 1968 it was found that this was no longer attainable, and the fuselage, wings, and undercarriage had once more to be designed. In 1969. the cost was £730 million ($1.75 billion): it rose to £1096 ($2.63 billion) by 1975. No one now mentions 150 or even 130 passengers. British Airways hoped to fly into New’ York with 100. To Washington, because of the extra 200 miles, they cannot take more than eighty, and with Atlantic head winds some flights this winter have had a limit of seventy; out of Bahrain, because of the heat, they can take off with only seventy-one.

As the overall weight of the plane kept increasing. so did the job required of the engines. The original specification was for thrust of around 30.000 lbs: the Olympus engines now powering Concorde provide 38.000 lbs. and the cost of developing them soared. As thrust increased, so did engine noise—while wurid environmental standards grew stricter. In Iy75 the British government dealt with this problem by exempting Concorde from its own noise requirements at Heathrow. The first studies made by the Greater London Council showed that Concorde violated those requirements on 75 percent of its takecfls, although the British Aircraft Corporation forecast that this proportion would be reduced as pilots became more expert at noise-abatement procedures. The Greater London Council’s figures also cast light on another of the plane’s characteristics: its noise “footprint.”whereby far more people are affected by the noise from Concorde than from other planes. Concorde disturbed twice as many people on takeofi as a 707, the GLC judged, and ten limes as many as a Lockheed I riStar.

Air France’s first takeoff from Dulles, on May 24. 1076. registered 129 PNdB: the British Airways pilot who followed sought to minimize the effect by taking off from a different runway, thus avoiding the noisemeasuring apparatus; Transportation Secretary Coleman summoned the British ambassador the following day and left him in no doubt what he thought of this maneuver, in the first months of taking off from Dulles. Concorde’s noise readings reached 130 PNdB. w ith an average of 120. The average for a 707 over the same period was 113.

The 707 is the plane with which British officials are happiest to see Concorde compared: Concorde, they argue, is in the same ball park. But as they well know, the major airlines will be replacing their 707 fleets at the end of the decade: their successors will be appreciably quieter. Concorde already suffers drastically in comparison with the 727: while it was recording the 120 average at Dulles, that for a 727 was 104.

The other major environmental argument considered at the Washington hearings concerned Concorde’s effects on the stratosphere and in particular on the ozone layer. Coleman declared that he could not “ignore the possibility that the six flights proposed by the British and French may result in some increase in the rate of nontnelanomic skin cancer.”

British Minister Kaufman had argued that it would be unreasonable to ban Concorde given that “military aircraft have for long flown supersonically and at great altitude over the United States.”Coleman agreed that he could not ban Concorde while the United Stales permitted other possible pollutants such as aerosols and refrigerants. At almost the same time the World Meteorological Organization, a UN agency in Geneva, said that thirty to iifty supersonic transports would not have a significant effect on the ozone layer, and that “present supersonic flights by military aircraft and rockets” were too few to cause concern. But. the WMO added, a “large fleet”—200 to 300— of supersonic planes could have a noticeable effect.

But. say the environmentalists, any go-ahead for the Concorde gives it an advantage of the sort that the SSI’s backers never won. And if Concorde is allowed to fly. what chance will the environmentalists have of defeating the new er and far greater threat of the B-l bomber, the USAF’s planned supersonic successor to the B-52. on whose behalf the militaryindustrial lobby is now campaigning? The USAF wants a fleet of 244 BIs—the cost is at present estimated as $21.4 billion—by 1985. Its advocates will use Concorde to demonstrate that supersonic flight is here to stay; all the more important, the environmentalists counter, to stop Concorde now.

Thus Concorde’s noise problem, despite Mo,: rien Morgan’s early, devout hopes, was never solved. Another set of early predictions for Concorde which have remained unfulfilled are those concerning the plane’s market prospects. S FAC had spoken of a world market for supersonic airliners of 150 to 500 by 1970; in 1962 the British government had considered 100 sales of Concorde as not especially optimistic, (They argued then that its operating costs would be “comparable" with subsonic planes.) Through the 1960s the manufacturers made much of the “options" which had been placed for the plane: the highest figure achieved was seventy-four, by sixteen airlines. in 1967. In the same year BAC s sales manaster was predicting, “on the most pessimistic assumptions.”sales of 225 Concordes by 1975,

But there was a vital difference between the options held by BAC and those which a major manufacturer normally obtains. When Boeing began the 747. it asked the world’s airlines what sort of plane they would like to operate; when it decided to go ahead and build, it did so with firm promises to buv. providing the plane met their specifications, from Pan Am. TWA, Lufthansa, and BOAC (now British Airways).

This was not the case with Concorde. BAC ‘s commercial manager recently wrote: “It must be the only airplane ever launched without some preliminary understanding with the airlines of what their requirements were and what the market for it might be.” Charles Tillinghast. then president of TWA, was with a British journalist on the day the Anglo-French agreement was signed. In some cmbarrassment he showed her the newspaper report and said, “No one asked us if we wanted the plane.” When TWA. like Pan Am. withdrew its “options” in 1973. it cost them no financial penalty to do so.

The only two airlines to buy the planes remain the two respective national carriers, British Airways and Air France. British Airways was virtually ordered to do so by the British government: the price was a very favorable £23 million each, against the present selling price of £35 million (S56 million), and they extracted a guarantee from the government to underwrite their losses. In 1974 British Airways calculated that these losses could be as much as £25 million a year.

The most determined attempt Britain ever made to escape from its commitment came in 1964. when a Labour election victory ended the thirteenyear Conservative regime. The new aviation minister, Roy Jenkins, was dispatched to Paris to negotiate a withdrawal, but the French merely pointed to the terms of the agreement. The British attorney general said that Britain might have to pay up to £200 million ($560 million) in damages, and the government backed down. At several subsequent points both the British and the French governments wanted to end the project, but in view of the wording of the treaty, neither side could afford to let it appear that it was the one seeking cancellation. for the other would see a chance of recouping its own expenditure and would maintain that it. of course, wanted to carry on.

When Labour’s rule ended in 1970. Edward Heath asked his government’s “think tank" a body of unaffiliated intellectuals, headed by Lord Rothschild, and known formally as the Central Policy Review Staff—to deliver a judgment on Concorde. When it came, it was simple enough. “Concorde.”it began, “is a commercial disaster.” But the report did accept that the plane carried considerable importance in terms of diplomacy and foreign relations. It could not recommend cancellation: that was a decision for government.

By now the wheel had turned full circle, for Heath had decided again to seek entry to the Common Market. The minister responsible for Concorde at the Department of Trade and Industry—which had earlier subsumed the Ministry of Aviation—was John Davies. “If Concorde had been merely a business decision.”he says now, “there was no possible reason for carrying on.” But. he adds, “Pompidou undoubtedly regarded Concorde as a touchstone of Anglo-French relations. If we had pulled out he would have regarded it as the biggest stab in the back.”

The first British Airways Concorde entered service in January 1976 with an inaugural flight to the tiny Persian Gulf state of Bahrain: on the same day. Air France flew to Rio. I he British press, which with a few honorable exceptions has maintained an uncritical and jingoistic attitude toward the plane, was ecstatic. “Triumphant Debut by Concorde—Champagne and Caviar at Magic Mach 2" were the headlines in the Conservative Daily Telegraph. Its air correspondent. Air Commodore E. M. Donaldson, wrote: “This without doubt must be the greatest leap forward in air travel the world has ever known.”

Herb Coleman, the London editor of Aviation Week. also on that first flight, was less sanguine. Concorde gives an “adequate” ride, he says. “ I he seats are very comfortable, up to first class standard. But it’s less adequate if you want to move around. If you’re used to wide-bodied planes Concorde’s cabin tends to close around you—it’s like being back in Constellation days. There’s a higher noise level although not enough to inhibit conversation. Apart from that it’s just another aircraft as far as I’m concerned.”

Since then Concorde has been flying to Bahrain with forty passengers or so: one flight had only twenty-one. Air France has been flying to Rio with 80 percent loads. British Airways flights into Washington have been over 90 percent full although often with at least twenty, sometimes as many as thirty-two. of the 100 seats “roped off" because the plane is operating at the limits of its range. Expenditure continues: $1.35 million for new passenger facilities at Heathrow; $900,000 for an advertising campaign in Britain, with commercials showing a silent Concorde flying through broken cloud, and the exhortation, “Fly the future fly the flag.”

Geoffrey Rippon and Julian Amery remained quite unabashed at their part in lumbering Britain with so enormous a debt, even though it is now accepted that much of Britain’s present ills result from excessive public expenditure. From them, and from Sir Morien Morgan, have come the most optimistic scenario for the future of’ Concorde; and from the British Aircraft Corporation itself, which is still using its supporters among the British air correspondents to promulgate its euphoric views.

The scenario runs as follows. Concorde will be allowed to land at Kennedy and will win overflying rights for its route to Australia (for much of 1976. tightly snagged in India). It will become so popular that Pan Am and TWA will be compelled to operate Concordes too. Later Britain. France, and the United States will together develop the next generation of supersonic airliners. (BAC has already let it be known that it is considering plans for a Concorde successor with McDonnell Douglas.) Concorde will have ensured Britain’s survival as a major aviation power.

The most remarkable aspect of the Amery/BAC vision is that it fails to profit in any way from the experience of Concorde. There is the astronomical cost, and the terrifying cost escalation, of such a project. Before the last Conservative aerospace minister, Michael Heseltine. left office in 1974. he asked his Ministry for an estimate of how much it would take to develop a second-generation Concorde. The answer was $7.2 billion. In 1976 RollsRoyce produced a new estimate: $11 billion.

There is also the failure to draw any lessons about the course of aircraft development. The clear moments of progress in the history of civil aviation were those where new models of aircraft decisively widened the world air travel market. Concorde’s first advocates, such as Morien Morgan, claimed that this was because most of these models could fiy faster than their predecessors: Concorde was thus a logical step forward.

But speed was not the decisive or sole factor as the new models replaced the old ones. Expansion of the world market took place because the new planes were supposed to reduce passenger costs. Concorde was to be the first major development which could not create a new market, but would seek to take a slice of markets that already existed. It would not reduce costs, but increase them, by up to three times per passenger mile: a ratio disastrously magnified by the actions of OPEC in 1973 and 1974.

It is true, as TWA’s president. Ed Meyer, conceded last summer, that there is a market for supersonic passenger flight. “There is going to be a certain group of first-class passengers who are prepared to pay for speed, and in no way can we compete.”he said. And pay they must. After hard bargaining within the International Air Transport Association (IATA). British Airways agreed that the New York-London Concorde fare should be the present first-class fare plus 20 percent. They quote $756 for the single New York London fare, against a subsonic first-class fare of $625, economy of $292. (Of course there are cheaper subsonic fares available too: return fares of $541 for a minimum 21-day stay, $325 for booking two months ahead.) Ed Meyer estimated that if Concorde should land at Kennedy, TWA would lose revenue of around $20 million a year, against TWA’s total turnover of $1.3 billion. But it made no economic sense for TWA to buy a Concorde, he said, nor even to lease space in a British Airways plane.

it is also true that the major U.S. manufacturers maintain small departments to keep abreast of supersonic developments. But the main thrust is in quite another direction: toward planes that will be quieter and will consume less fuel, thus meeting today’s twin demands of economy and ecology. The three main U.S. companies appear to agree that the 200-seat plane for short and medium ranges is the next logical step. McDonnell Douglas is talking of a DC-X-200. effectively a scaled-down DC-10: Boeing has designated its next model the 7X7. a medium-sized wide-body plane, but is far from hard on its specifications. The first problem for the manufacturers, already hit by the recession in aviation that followed OPEC, is to raise development finance. Indeed, this difficulty may force airlines to buy planes that are essentially derivatives of models Hying today—and last summer British Airways decided to replace some of its 707s with a long-range version of the Lockheed TriStar, requiring only minimal modification. Boeing, meanwhile, estimates that an entirely new 7X7 would cost around one billion dollarsagainst which the projected figures for a new supersonic airliner recede into absurdity.

Concorde certainly won the British and French aircraft industries a good share of publicity. Whether it has helped keep them healthy, as STAC proposed, is a different matter.

The likely but bleak alternative to the Amery scenario is that no more than the sixteen Concordes at present scheduled will be built. British Airways and Air France have ordered nine of them; buyers for the remaining seven are nowhere in prospect, and the manufacturers have recently sent a Concorde on a tour of the Far East, hoping in the last resort to persuade airlines there to lease the plane. After some skirmishing, the British and French got together in November to discuss future aviation projects: a new Concorde was accorded extremely low priority. The British approach, Gerald Kaufman declared, would henceforth be based on profits—"not prestige, politics, or grandeur.”The present Concordes will fly on the routes for ten years or so: then they will probably disappear. After all, the first two pre-production Concordes built in Britain are already in museums. □

  1. In May 1976, Professor David Henderson, newly appointed professor of political economy at University College. London, argued that the government’s figure of £1.46 billion shared between Britain and France was a drastic underestimate. It had been reached by adding the yearly expenditure on the project at the current prices. If these were adjusted to 1975 prices, and interest charges of 10 percent added, then the cost of Concorde was not £1.46 billion but £4.26 billion ($6.82 billion at the present exchange rate of $1.60).
  2. Consideration of the “true cost” of Concorde is further complicated by the pound’s fluctuating exchange rate. In 1959, when the first cost estimates were made, the pound stood at S2.80. Devaluation in 1967 took it to $2.40. In mid-1973 it was back to almost $2.60 but then its decline began. In April 1975 it was at $2.40; December 1975, $2.01; May 1976, $1.82; August, $1.78; September. $1.64; October, $1.59, In this article, where dollars are used for British figures they have been converted at the rate prevailing at that time.