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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

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 agreement -- otherwise 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.

Amery received delegations from both ministries asking that the offending clauses be removed. He told the French not to worry 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 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 design took place, and so did the first official reappraisal of costs, raised to 275 million, compared with the maximum estimateof 95 million. The STAC report had made. There was a further redesign in 1965: by 1966, the costs were given as 45 million ($1.26 billion).

As work progressed, the very fine margins of original concept -- which Dietrich Kuchemann 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 730 million ($1.75 billion); it rose to 1096 ($2.63 billion) by 1975. No one now mentions 150 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 world environmental standards grew stricter. In 1975 the British government dealt with this problem by exempting Concorde from its noise requirements at Heathrow. The first studies made by the Greater London Council showed that Concorde violated those requirements on 75 percent of its takeoffs, 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 takeoff as a 707, the GLC judged, and ten times as many as a Lockheed TriStar.

Air France's first takeoff from Dulles, on May 24, 1976 registered 129 PNdB; the British Airways pilot who followed sought to minimize the effect by taking a different runway, thus avoiding the noise-measuring 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, with an average of 120. The average for a 707 over the 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 nonmelanomic 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 States 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 fifty supersonic transports would not have a significant effect on the ozone layer, and that "present supersonic flights by military air craft 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 SST's backers never won. And if Concorde is allowed to fly, what chance will the environmentalists have of defeating the newer and far greater threat of the B-1 bomber, the USAF's planned supersonic successor to the B-52, on whose behalf the military-industrial lobby is now campaigning? The USAF wants a fleet of 244 B-1s -- 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 Morien 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. STAC 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 BACs sales manager 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 buy, 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 resident of TWA, was with a British journalist on the day the Anglo-French agreement was signed. In some embarrassment 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 ($56 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 thirteen-year 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. The British press, which with a few honorable exceptions has maintained an uncritical and jingoistic attitude toward the plane, was ecstatic. "Triumphant Debut by Concord -- Concorde-Champagne and Caviar at Magic Mach 2" were the headlines in 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. "The seats are very comfortable, up to first class forward. But it's less adequate if you want to 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 high 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 ten 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 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," from the British Aircraft Corporation itself, which is still using its supporters among the British correspondents to promulgate its euphoric views.

The scenario runs as follows. Concorde will be allowed to land at Kennedy and will win flying 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 already 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 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 Rolls-Royce produced a new estimate: $11 billion.

There is also the failure to draw any lessons out 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 fly faster than their predecessors: Concorde was thus a logical forward.

But speed was not the decisive or sole factor as the 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 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 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 flying 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 dollars -- against 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.

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.


Copyright © 1977 by Peter Gillman.All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1977; The Story of the Concorde - 77.01 (Part Two); Volume 239, No. 1; page 72-81.