On October 24th 2003 the supersonic Concorde jet made its last commercial passenger flight, traveling at twice the speed of sound from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport. A large crowd of spectators greeted the plane’s arrival in London, which coincided with two other final Concorde flights from Edinburgh and the Bay of Biscay.
Concorde, which was developed jointly by the British and French governments, began commercial service in January 1976. A significant achievement in aviation technology and design, the sleek, delta-winged planes could make the trip from New York to London in around three and a half hours, traveling at 1,350 miles per hour. The Concorde became a symbol of speed and luxury, although it was not without its problems. Some who lived under its flight path criticised the enormous noise it produced – especially the sonic ‘boom’ as it broke the speed of sound.
Tragically, on July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde jet crashed after takeoff from Paris and 113 people died. While Concorde might in normal circumstances have been able to survive the impact on its safety reputation in the crash’s aftermath, it could not fight back from the fatal combination of a weaker economy, rising aviation fuel prices and a growing belief among corporate travel buyers that paying premium fares for 1970s technology no longer justified the extra burst of speed. Noise, emissions and costs killed Concorde and it was – without doubt – the end of a special era of aviation history as one of the most iconic and innovative commercial aeroplanes ever designed disappeared from the skies.
Nevertheless, a new era of supersonic travel could yet emerge. The lure of flying faster-than-sound on a commercial basis has never really gone away. While the British and French governments who bankrolled the original development of Concorde’s supersonic technology have, understandably, shied away from this, scientists in the US and Japan are leading the way in a new race to develop the so-called ‘Son of Concorde’. Boeing is working with NASA on developing new fuel-efficient, quieter engines for an aircraft eventually able to carry two or three times the 100-seat original Concorde – an essential development if a new aircraft is to become commercially viable.
However, reducing the impact of the ‘boom’ is still regarded as the game-changer if a new version of Concorde is ever to be built. Indeed, it is possible that the development of a new generation of supersonic aircraft could become outflanked by better use of existing rocket technology as this could bypass the sonic boom issue over land. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture (which is due in 2015 to start flying commercial passengers to the edge of space for a cool $250,000) is already looking ahead to the next stage: daily flights from London to Sydney in about four hours.
So, for those business travellers for whom speed still equals money who knows, perhaps the sky is truly the limit?