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Aviation as a whole interests me for many reasons but the major one for me, as well as other aviation fans, is the fact that we as humans have achieved flight and this still amazes me every time I step foot on an aeroplane. The epitome of this achievement is Concorde. The first of only two commercial supersonic airliners that have existed as of yet. Concorde is the focus of my essay, the history and the reasons for its grounding.
As I said, Concorde is one of only two aircraft to ever fly paying customers at speeds of Mach 2.
0, or twice the speed of sound, a speed which would cause a sonic boom so loud that people on both sides of the Atlantic could hear it. It had a cruising altitude of over 50,000 feet and was designed by a joint force of British and French engineers under the Anglo-French Concorde Treaty, for British Airways and Air France. It was a treaty designed to make sure the dream of supersonic flight was achieved by the two members and so that if either of them decided they wanted out for any reason, whether it be funding or political disputes or for any other reason, they would pay a heavier price and it would be harder to back out.
Concorde’s name originated from this treaty as “Concord” means agreement in both Fench and English. The teams from both sides of The Channel came together to build twenty total aircraft, fourteen which flew commercially and six test planes.
These fourteen Concordes flew for twenty-seven years on flights headed all over the world, but probably most notably on the route from London Heathrow to New York John F. Kennedy on British Airways flight, BA001, which took just three and a half hours, which compared to the near eight hours it takes today is just staggering. Lastly, before I move onto the main title of the essay, is the number of flights and passengers that concorde flew in its lifespan. It flew over 50,000 flights and carried a huge 2.5 million passengers. This figure amazes me purely because there were only fourteen operational aircraft and contrasting this to the thousands of Airbus A320s or Boeing 777s which fly today, is near unbelievable.
Looking towards the title of my essay, we can find many answers to why supersonic aviation has declined. Its practicality, different styles of commercial air travel and the aviation industry as a whole all culminated to its downfall. Most notably however, has got to be the question of its safety. For me I think the sad fact is for Concorde, one of the main reasons it is still remembered, is because of its Crash in 2000. Air France flight 4590 crashed soon after takeoff from Paris, into a Hotel in the suburbs. It was discovered that the cause of the crash was a piece of debris from a prior flight had been left on the runway. This debris punctured a tyre which caused pieces of rubber to fly into the engines and further rupture a fuel tank. This process caused the engine to explode and force the plane into a certain crash which subsequently killed all of the 109 passengers and 4 on the ground. This crash proved pivotal for the service of the aircraft as it lost its Certificate of Airworthiness and did not regain this until September 2001. After this, Concorde’s operation ceased in 2003 when British Airways flew its last flight on October the 24th. The crash was a real upset for the future of supersonic air travel as until then it had been one of the safest aircraft ever built with zero crashes and zero fatalities, but after which, was regarded to be far less safe, down to a crash which was not really the planes fault, but that of the previous plane which left the debris.
For airline bosses, the practicality of the running of such an aircraft has always been unsure and Concorde was no different. There were many times throughout its operation when people believed there were better alternatives to it, this due to many reasons like noise pollution and running costs. This was the main reason that only the two airlines ever flew it and why twenty were only ever built. There were many half hearted bids from other carriers to buy and fund the construction of further Concordes but the threat of running at a loss was too large for anyone to actually purchase anymore. For the first few years Concorde did run at a loss, for The British Government who funded the British operation, that was an 80% revenue rate. This only improved later on when oil prices dropped and ticket prices rose to mean that Concorde was profitable. Added to this was the threat of flying at the speeds Concorde did. For routes which flew over continents, the vast majority of the time Mach 2.0 speeds weren’t reached purely down to the extreme noise it did create to make these speeds a reality. So Concorde only flew at speeds other planes could achieve. This was the reason that the vast majority of routes did fly over The Atlantic. So was there a point in investing so much into something which could be done with aircraft like The Boeing 747, which British Airways is still loyal to today.
Staying on the point of alternative choices for Concorde, we have two ends of the spectrum. Low-cost, ‘Budget Airlines’ and luxury air travel aboard much larger airliners than Concorde, such as the likes of Emirates and Singapore Airlines. Firstly looking at low-cost airlines, from airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair we see that they have thrived off of providing low quality products for relatively cheap prices. They have built up vast networks of routes and create huge turnover as they look to fill every flight. They have now got many customers willing to put up with the lack of ‘old-school’ luxuries which we would have seen in times of aviation gone by and send these passengers on an array of short haul routes. So why are these airlines such a threat to supersonic air travel? Well, as I mentioned, these types of airlines provide lower quality services as we now, in my opinion, don’t care or appreciate air travel as much as we would have done in Concorde’s glory days and this has caused us to settle for these products, instead of striving for bigger and better things like Concorde. Then on the other hand, we have other airlines, who offer high-end, high-quality, luxury products which have become attractive for the more well off customer who would have once flown supersonic. Seats can cost upwards of £10,000 and this is a price many are willing to pay in order to get a world-class service. British Airways realised this in the early 2000s, when they saw they could make more money from their first class product than by running Concorde and this combined with the other previously mentioned factors all came together to result in its grounding.
Lastly, I think it is very important to consider the aviation industry as a whole in the years leading up to Concorde’s grounding. In the years leading up to the turn of the millenium, aviation was booming. Oil prices were low, there was a high investment into the industry and an overall pride amongst those who were looking for bigger and better things, aircraft more advanced than Concorde even. However this all came crashing down as a result of the September Eleventh attacks. People were undoubtedly scared of flying as a result of the events that took place and as a whole the industry declined vastly. This obviously meant there was less money being pumped into aviation and subsequently, Concorde became impossible to fund, especially when there were better alternatives economically.
Looking to the future, I do think there is a largely positive outlook as to the revival of high-speed air travel. Many space agencies, governments and aircraft manufacturers have issued various concepts for future possible supersonic aircraft, some of which are rather far fetched, but others which seem spookily plausible and are said to be available within the next few years. The prospect of hypersonic is even supposed to be closer than we once thought, hypersonic being at speeds of Mach 5.0. Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, has predicted that their hypersonic concept could roll out in “the next decade or two.” The idea of hypersonic within my lifetime really excites me and if it is to happen, I would definitely be the first to sign up.
Overall, I have mixed feelings with the way aviation is going at the moment. I love the fact that there are people out there who want to look for more in the aviation world, whether it be a new first-class product or looking to build the fastest in atmosphere aeroplane ever, these things excite me. But unfortunately, with Easyjet becoming the biggest airline in the UK, these new concepts seem all the further away when you sit down on your damp seat without armrests on a Ryanair flight at 6:00 am from Luton. I just hope we do not drift too far away from our former selves when it comes to aviation and we revitalise the industry back to its glory days when planes like Concorde were soaring high above the rest.
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