Updated: Feb 20
The shameless, semi-witted demonstration of the feebleness of the political elite and the proof, if it were ever needed, that the priority of happiness is nowhere near the agenda of government.
The death of Concorde at the hands of an administrative and business establishment with all the foresight of a tunnel full of moles was one of the defining signifiers of the not-so-gentle decline of the nation, and an intellectually illuminated line that divides the now from the then.
Gifted long ago by the government to British Airways (a sort of slight of political hand which governments since the Second World War have become adept at), the fumbling, winding-down of Concorde as a piece of technology and an asset of the nation, was as grindingly expected as it was to be lamented.
Overall, the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde (to give Concorde its full title) was the most successful of the two supersonic passenger airliners that operated commercially (the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 being the other, when it could make it into the air, that is). First flown in 1969, Concorde’s commercial services began in 1976 and then continued until 2003. Painted in British Airways and Air France colours, Concorde flew transatlantic flights from London and Paris to New York and Washington in under half the time of the more regular, and far duller, airliners cluttering the skies. During its (frankly marvellous) career, Concorde also set a variety of records, including the official FAI Westbound Around The World and Eastbound Around the World airspeed records (which remain today in the current Guinness Book of Records, and which are likely to stay there for a long time to come).
Not bad for a government project that critics claimed would never be a success.
The costly development phase of Concorde did, however, represent a substantial economic loss for the British and French governments and potential sales never did materialise, partly because of the effects of the 1973 oil crisis (when the music stopped for western businesses and governments on several levels) and partly because of competition from the (equally marvellous) Boeing 747.
As a result, only 20 commercial Concordes were ever built, and Air France and British Airways bought those Concordes after being heavily subsidised for doing so by their respective governments. A sort of win-win for both airlines (particularly as Concorde went on to make huge operating profits for British Airways for much of its service life).
Scheduled flights began for the pointy-nosed bird on 21 January 1976 on the London - Bahrain and Paris - Rio routes (how cosmopolitan) and then, after initial American political opposition, commercial flights began to Washington on 24 May 1976. You may remember this messy, exciting launch of the service in the face of American resistance to technological beauty. Blue Peter covered the first flights to New York (the lovely Lesley Judd on the microphone gasping about how Concorde did rather incredible things to concepts of time and space).
And the fanfare was justified because, while commercial jets typically take seven hours to fly the Atlantic, the average Concorde supersonic flight time on the transatlantic routes was just three and a half hours. In flight Concorde travelled more than twice as fast as other aircraft, thus making other aircraft appear to be flying backwards.
And how cool is that?
Concorde’s life in the skies came to a halt on 25 July 2000 with an appalling Paris crash and ended for good on 24 October 2003 (with the last ‘retirement’ flight taking place on 26 November). Then it was over. For good.
Whilst in service, Concorde was of course, due to its high ticket price, perceived as a privilege of the rich, though special circular charter flights also took place and were popular with, you know, the masses and Pools winners, partly because of the mystique of the aeroplane they were flying in. This perhaps explains why, in 2006, Concorde won The Culture Show’s much-publicised Design Contest, which invited the public to vote for their favourite examples of British design. In doing so, Concorde beat off the Mini, the mini-skirt (huh?), the London Underground map and the Dyson vacuum cleaner.
Part of the appeal of Concorde, even to this day, is in its design and aesthetic, in the graceful sweep of the delta wing, in the perky nose and the long, thin passenger cabin. As a feature in the sky from the mid-70s onwards,
Concorde was a joy to watch for all those who stopped to stare, if only for a few seconds. It was different to everything else man-made that cluttered the skies (a little triangle darting across the sky), though on the ground it always seemed a little dwarfed by the much larger, heavier and more imposing Boeing 747 (which came to be Concorde’s chief rival for the affections of international airlines and which, by catching the right trend at the best time, came to bury Concorde as a commercial proposition). But in the air, Concorde was a wonder. It made people who would never fly in it happy, partly because it was a genuine marvel and because it also belonged to all British citizens, for a while at least.
For, it was the British public who (actually) paid for Concorde at a pretty hefty cost, and who allowed, through their investment, for the aeroplanes to be built, brought into service and delivered, essentially to transport David Frost et-al back and forth across the Atlantic. There are worse things for the government to spend our money on and uglier things as well (the conflict in Iraq perhaps being one of them, which cost the American government alone more than the entire US Apollo space programme).
In its super-duper way, Concorde remains a slightly sad example of how British governments never found the means to bring the distinct demands of the market and politics together. As a sort of grand project between the French and British it was born in one age (the corporate state), delivered commercially into another (the wobbly state) and retired in yet another entirely (the cowardly state). At no time between those three stages in the evolution of the British economy was the political elite of the day able to demonstrate it could marry national interest with market demand.
And Concorde was the victim of that political failure.