Concorde refit is last hurrah of unfulfilled aviation dream: Christian Wolmar looks back on a trouble-ridden Anglo-French project that failed to reach the heights predicted by its designers

BRITISH Airways is spending pounds 1m on revamping each of its seven Concordes, a last fling for the aircraft before it is consigned to the scrapheap.

The improvements are mostly to the cabin area which was beginning to have a 'tired and dated image', much to the displeasure of its elite clientele. The new, all-grey livery will be its last as the aircraft is expected to survive in service only until the early years of the next decade.

The aircraft, which was intended to usher in an era of supersonic air travel, is approaching old age, having first flown commercially in January 1976. The revolution it was supposed to inspire has long been abandoned.

Apart from Concorde, air travel is still subsonic and is likely to remain so well into the next century, if not forever. As Mike Ramsden, editor of the Royal Aeronautical Society's magazine Aerospace, put it: 'Concorde was Europe's answer to America's Apollo project to put a man on the moon. It was a way for the British and French to cock a snook at the Americans, to show that we had the edge on technology and it was a way to develope our entente with the French.'

The cost of that impudence has been enormous. The project never repaid a single penny of its development costs of around pounds 1.1bn, nearly 10 times that sum in today's money, because of a series of fundamental mistakes. The most important of the errors was the failure to realise that the noise - not only the sonic boom but the ruckus on take-off which, despite some improvement, still sets off car alarms in airport car parks - would arouse so much opposition.

The blunder was understandable. The project was conceived in the late Fifties when propeller aircraft still ruled the skies. It was only by the time of the first test flight in March 1969 that the anti-noise lobby, which first came to the fore in New York, was becoming a powerful force - for Concorde, a deadly one.

As Mr Ramsden recalled, Concorde became a pawn in the fight between those who believed in human beings' ability to conquer all through technology and those who felt that such developments were threatening the future of the planet. With Concorde, the latter won through.

Airlines such as Qantas, PanAm and TWA had taken up options but on one black day in February 1973 they decided, simultaneously, to cancel and what, initially, had been 58 options by foreign buyers became zero sales. Only Air France and British Airways, both state-owned, whose governments had jointly sponsored the project, would ever put them in service.

There were other problems. The range, at around 4,000 miles was too short to cover any of the lucrative routes, apart from the Atlantic. Fuel consumption, too, was so high that with only 100 passengers, the economics were impossible to reconcile.

The oil price shock of 1973-74 was the last straw, although BA had already discovered there was no market. A former BA executive recalled: 'We found out that the potential market to Melbourne, with fares at first class rate plus 20 per cent, which is what was needed to make a profit, was all of 11 people per week. It was obviously impossible.'

In 1976, the first two Concordes took off simultaneously from London and Paris on their inaugural flights. Over the next few years, British Airways and Air France built up a network of routes encompassing Bahrain, Rio de Janeiro, Dakar, Mexico, Singapore and Dallas, as well as New York and Washington. But with the exception of the transatlantic routes, they all lost money, even without taking into account the aircraft's capital costs.

By the early 1980s, calls to abandon the project were mounting on both sides of the Channel. The clamour reached a crescendo when a select committee found that it would be cheaper to scrap the project.

BA fought back, encouraged by the supporters of the project, who had, as one former executive put it, 'a schoolboy enthusiasm for Concorde'. The politicians did not dare go against the wealth of feeling, and saved Concorde by the simple expedient of giving the seven aircraft to BA, writing off the nominal pounds 32m charge for each aircraft.

BA scrapped the route network it had developed, the Atlantic crossing apart, and put its faith in charters, the favourite being the quick supersonic burn-up round the Bay of Biscay. But essentially the plane became an irrelevance, except as the flagship aircraft used by people everybody had heard of.

BA began to make a modest profit out of Concorde but with privatisation the beneficiaries are now its shareholders. Today, apart from the charters and a handful of winter flights to Barbados, BA flies twice daily to New York and three times a week to Washington, although this route is now a loss-maker.

With only 34 flights a week shared between six aircraft - the seventh is used for charters - the engineers may find a way of prolonging Concorde's life into the early 21st century but it may not be viable to do so.

Meanwhile, the debate about whether it was all worthwhile continues. There have been spin-offs, as Mr Ramsden pointed put. 'Concorde gave us carbon brakes and helped give Europe the lead on 'fly by wire' technology which was introduced by Airbus five years ago - Boeing is still three years away from it . . .'

The biggest complaint of the anti- Concorde lobby is that it wrecked the British aerospace industry. Other more viable projects such as BAC's 3- 11, a wide-bodied jet for which there had been 50 orders, were scrapped because Concorde ate up all available research and development money. Without Concorde, Britain may have been able to keep its aerospace industry for a decade or two. Instead, it went down a technological dead-end.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us