The Concorde, one of only two supersonic commercial jets in service to date, was retired in late 2003 – after flying for 27 years. Following a farewell tour around North America and the United Kingdom, British Airways and Air France retired all 20 Concordes that were built, of which 16 flew. (“The” Concorde was actually a fleet of identical jets.) Several planes went to museums around the world; others were dismantled and auctioned off in parts to collectors.
Flying at Mach 2 – about 1,350mph – the Concorde could fly 100 passengers and a crew of nine from NYC to London in an average of three hours and 30 minutes. With tailwinds, it made a record flight in just two hours, 52 minutes.
Due to its signature sonic boom that sounded like a double explosion on the ground, the Concorde was prohibited from flying over land. As a result, routes it could serve were limited – primarily London and Paris to New York and DC. But because of the time savings, and the elite status of flying the Concorde on these routes, airlines were able to charge a premium rate of $12,000 round-trip. The jet only had to fly at 50% capacity to break even.
The plane was grounded after an accident shortly after takeoff in July of 2000 that killed all 109 people on board and four people on the ground. The official investigation blamed a titanium strip that fell from a Continental plane minutes earlier. The strip struck a tire, which exploded, causing fragments to impact the underside of the left wing where one of the fuel tanks was held. Leaking fuel ignited and caused a fire in one of the engines. The remaining engines were not able to produce enough thrust to allow the plane to take off. The jet crashed just a mile away in a ball of flame. Other theories blame the accident on excess fuel that was not on the manifest.
Significant modifications were manadated, which cost the airlines $150m. These safety improvements were completed and tested in early 2001. Its first flight with passengers after the July 2000 accident was on September 11, 2001. That flight landed in NYC just before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, the premium first-class ticket market collapsed after 9/11, and the airlines were not able to recover their modification costs.
The Concorde was designed and built jointly by France and the United Kingdom, starting in 1965. Its development costs, including cost overruns, was over $3b. The jet used four military engines that were exceedingly loud and inefficient. Original projections suggested there was a total market between 100 to 500 jets at $30-56m. Ultimately, only 9 jets were sold at $46m ($350m today) to Air France and British Airways. In 1979, both countries’ governments gave the airlines 5 additional planes for a few thousand dollars.
Amazingly, the Concorde jet was built before integrated circuits, personal computers, CAD/CAM programs, and modern calculators – a beautiful engineering marvel. Its final flight concluded on November 26, 2003 with a landing in the UK.