Boom boom bust

Concorde first flew the north Atlantic 21 years ago this week. Now, in the twilight of its days, business people and celebrities are filling the 'plane and fares are rising. A great British success story after all?
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The Independent Online
At 6.30 tonight, you could leave London Heathrow on a British Airways Jumbo to Kennedy airport in New York; a last-minute ticket from a discount agent will cost you pounds 371 return. Suppose, though, you are held up on the way to the airport. Another BA flight leaves half an hour later. And even though it will cost you pounds 6,000 extra to get aboard, business is sonically booming.

Fares on Concorde have reached almost pounds 1 per mile, yet there are still plenty of people prepared to pay the price. Business people, celebrities and lottery-winners have not been deterred by ticket prices that have risen 15 per cent in the last year. The world's only commercial supersonic aircraft has an amazing influence on the hearts and minds, as well as the wallets, of the British. Twice a day the residents of Windsor, Maidenhead and Reading are deafened as Concorde blasts - sorry, takes - off for New York. Yet even though she has departed every day for the last 21 years, everyone I know still stares, transfixed, as the slender craft floats past with a roar that belies her beauty.

Aesthetics helps to explain why Concorde is still flying. And so does chauvinism. In the 1960s, Britain had not come to terms with a diminished role in the post-colonial world. We had, after all, pioneered jet travel, only for the Comet story to end tragically with a succession of fatigue- related accidents that allowed US companies to leapfrog the UK.

A supersonic passenger aircraft seemed the ideal way for Bristol's British Aircraft Corporation (now British Aerospace) to harness "the white heat of technology" promised by the local MP, Tony Benn. Along with the French firm of Sud-Aviation, based in Toulouse, British designers started to build a plane for the future.

Unfortunately, the project was rooted firmly in the past. It was a bit like trying to build a Formula One racing car from the combined resources of the Morris Minor and Citroen 2CV production lines. You could do it, but the results would be far from perfect.

The word "concord" alludes to peace and harmony (Mr Benn claimed the extra "e" stood for "excellence, England, Europe and entente cordiale"), yet these are qualities notably absent from Concorde's four horrible Olympus engines. The aircraft's jets are based upon military engines. In war, considerations of quietness and fuel economy are irrelevant. In peace, however, these qualities are cherished - which is why each additional howling decibel and ton of kerosene was another nail in the commercial coffin of Concorde.

The first prototype took off 30 years ago, just ahead of the Boeing 747. The plan was that the two aircraft would work in, well, concord. At the time passenger jets were divided into first and economy classes, rather than the multiplicity of frills that confuse travellers these days.

The elegantly simple plan involved all the premium passengers being siphoned off to Concorde, while we cheapskates packed the 747. But while Boeing's largest plane has sold more than 1,000, with hundreds more on order, Concorde production ended with just 14 sales. Air France took half these; most are now in mothballs, or being slowly stripped for spares. The remainder were allotted to BOAC, now part of BA, and are the among the most under- used planes in the world. BA's collection of seven supersonic jets is airborne, on average, for just over two hours each day.

In the economics of aviation this sort of usage is nonsense. To make any sort of reasonable return, an aircraft needs to be flying for 10 or 12 hours. How, then, can BA claim to make a profit on its Concorde operations? Because the British government wrote off the enormous capital investment, that's how. I calculate that, at current prices, each BA Concorde cost the taxpayer nearly pounds 1bn. You can get 10 good Jumbos for that sort of money.

Concorde is unsustainable environmentally as well as economically. Besides the noise shadow Concorde casts upon the people of southern England and Long Island, the aircraft burns huge amounts of fuel at high altitude. On a fully loaded plane, each passenger consumes 250 gallons of fuel on the way across the Atlantic.

With hindsight, it was inevitable that Concorde would be a commercial shambles. In a blaze of publicity that would impress Richard Branson, the first supersonic passenger flights took off from Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle on 21 January, 1976. But rather than flying to rich pastures of the US, they were heading to those none-too-notable gateways of Bahrain and Dakar.

The North Atlantic routes upon which Concorde's success depended remained closed to the new jet. There were dark rumblings about the Americans being miffed by Europe's supersonic success. After much diplomacy, Washington relented; 21 years ago this week, the city became the first US destination for Concorde.

Passengers on that first UK-US flight paid pounds 431 return. They couldn't do it now, for the simple reason that Washington recently became the seventh place to drop off the Concorde schedules. Only New York survives, with the odd holiday flight to Barbados and a range of daytripping charters.

Bahrain, Dakar, Dallas, Miami, Rio and Singapore each enjoyed a brief supersonic affair, before the truths of aviation economics triumphed over national prestige.

Truth 1: With ever-more-crowded airports and transport links, time on the ground now exceeds the flying component of many journeys. The cab ride to Heathrow and from JFK can add three hours to a London-New York trip, diminishing the value of Concorde's time-saving.

Truth 2: If your time is really that important, why travel at all? Tele- commuting is one option; getting the world to come to you (subsonically) is another.

Truth 3: Concorde lacks the range for the routes where time-saving really makes a difference. If you could reach Los Angeles from London in five hours, rather than 11, then paying a premium could be worthwhile. But Concorde can barely make it to Barbados without a refuelling stop.

Even if engineers could stretch Concorde's range, the results would not necessarily bring joy to airline accountants. Passengers would be more likely to notice how uncomfortable it is. The main intention of Concorde's absurdly elaborate inflight service is to prevent you from noticing how uncomfortably cramped the cabin is; even the economy passengers on that Jumbo you overtook 100 miles back have more room. And with satellite navigation beginning to help airlines fly more direct trajectories, subsonic travel is speeding up.

There are, says BA, plenty of people who are so rich and so pressed for time that they will pay pounds 1 per mile. Four out of five passengers are business people, with performers, lottery-winners and royalty filling the remaining seats. I doubt if they reap the aesthetic experience that we Concorde one-timers enjoyed, overturning intuition by overtaking the sun. No matter: each one of them is enjoying a huge subsidy from British taxpayers.

The reason no supersonic successor to Concorde will be ready by the time she droops her nose for the last time is that no one has figured out a way to make supersonic travel pay. Ten years from now, expect to read the obituaries for a machine that was never really a part, let alone ahead of, its time.

Still thinking of going to New York tonight? Do the sensible thing, and get a cheap flight on a Boeing 747. Yesterday I found a discount seat on Virgin Atlantic's departure this evening to Kennedy for pounds 275. To reach Terminal 3, I have to cycle around the A4 roundabout north of Heathrow.

And there, standing sleekly and seductively, hogging the attention of everyone, is a model of Concorde - the graceful bird that should never have flownn

Three ways to fly Concorde on the cheap

Ten years ago I paid pounds 150 to fly one-way to New York on Concorde, acting as an on-board courier for Securicor, my former employer. Sadly, this solution is no longer possible, but there are ways of reducing the full pounds 6,678 fare.

1. Take advantage of the special summer discount of pounds 5,354 being offered, subject to availability, by British Airways (0345 222111).

2. Ask your travel agent to split his or her commission on this deal. The agent earns at least 9 per cent on a Concorde ticket, so if you negotiate a rebate of, say, 3 per cent, you could save pounds 200.

3. Travel via Paris on Air France. If you travel out to New York in business class and back on Concorde, then a discount agent such as Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000) will sell you a ticket for less than pounds 4,000 - including connecting flights from the UK airport.SC