Plans are underway for a new generation of commercial supersonic aircraft a decade after Concorde ceased flying. But will companies be prepared to pay the price? David Churchill reports
Ten years ago, one of the commercial aviation world’s most remarkable and controversial aircraft flew for the last time, bringing to an end the 27-year era of flying on business and for fun at twice the speed of sound. Concorde G-BOAF, the last of the 20-strong fleet of iconic aircraft to be built, made its final flight on November 26, 2003, when it flew back from London’s Heathrow airport to its original home at Airbus’s Filton facility in Bristol.
The final three commercial flights under British Airways’ colours had already taken place a few weeks earlier but, perhaps significantly, these included only one ‘traditional’ transatlantic flight from New York carrying fare-paying punters. The other two were largely used as promotional rewards for VIPs and competition winners, perhaps showing just how far Concorde’s iconic status had been reduced to a quasi-marketing tool rather than a serious means of business travel.
Air France’s supersonic fleet, which had never really recovered from the 2000 Paris Concorde crash that killed 113 people, had stopped flying for good in May 2003. 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 1960s technology no longer justified the extra burst of speed. It was - without - doubt the end of a special era of aviation history.
SON OF CONCORDE
But perhaps 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, eschewed similar largesse in the current economic climate, scientists in the US and Japan are leading the way in a new race to develop the so-called ‘Son of Concorde’.
By the end of this decade, in fact, there is the strong possibility of at least one new supersonic business jet (SBJ) becoming available for the generation of Wall Street and City bankers who were too young for the real thing last time round. Such an SBJ would be about the size of an existing small (12 to 20-seater) Gulfstream jet, and would probably still only fly transatlantic between London or Paris and New York unless the restraints on supersonic flying over land are lifted.
But while developing the technology for a small supersonic business jet by 2020 or shortly thereafter appears feasible, the timeframe for developing a larger supersonic aircraft is further away. Most industry experts put the development of a real replacement for Concorde taking until at least 2030.
US aerospace giant Boeing is currently leading the charge for a second-generation Concorde. In 1971 it pulled out of the international race to build the first commercial supersonic transport (SST) after the US government withdrew its financial support, leaving the coast clear for the British Aircraft Corporation and France’s Aerospatiale. But Boeing is now 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.
Other US companies working on new SSTs include Lockheed Martin, while smaller American outfits – such as Aerion Corporation – are focusing on supersonic business jets. Japan’s national space exploration and development agency JAXA is also collaborating with NASA on ways of reducing the impact of the supersonic ‘boom’, not only by developing quieter engines but also by studying whether the impact for those on the ground can be mitigated by other less-tangible factors, such as changing how the noise generated is perceived, both in the open air and inside buildings.
BAN THE BOOM
Reducing the impact of the ‘boom’ generated by aircraft travelling faster than the speed of sound is regarded as the game-changer if a new version of Concorde is ever to be built. Without it, it is unlikely that the US or other countries would lift the ban on supersonic flying over land. Peter Coen is a senior NASA executive in charge of research into supersonic transport – which forms part of the space agency’s remit. He says: “If we can’t solve the boom problem there is no sense working through the other issues [design, fuel efficiency and emissions] because the airlines won’t buy an aircraft they can’t fly to wherever they want to.”
Another delay-factor is that an accurate cost-benefit analysis for a new SST is not easy to establish, given the unproven technology and uncertainty over whether the market – primarily high-end corporate travellers and well-heeled leisure passengers – would be willing to pay the premium for faster flying.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Concorde was worth the premium – about 20 per cent more than first class, although it varied according to demand – to the City bankers brokering multi-billion pound deals who needed to hop across the Atlantic to meet their counterparts face-to-face. Concorde’s three-and-a half hour flight time from London to New York (the record crossing was under three hours), along with the time difference between London and NY, made it an effective time-management tool for busy executives.
For British Airways, which in the Concorde era counted City banks as among its most important corporate clients (it still does), it was an important marketing weapon – not least because of its ability to offer upgrades to ‘commercially important passengers’.
But this rather drew attention to doubts over Concorde’s commercial viability: there were just not enough high-flyers whose companies were prepared to pay the premium. This was a particular problem for Air France at the time, because its banks had less exposure to Wall Street.
This arguably remains the key non-technical issue for the next generation of supersonic aircraft – will travel managers in the next decade be willing to sanction their executives flying faster than sound at a premium price? Without their backing the odds may be against the investment being made to make commercial supersonic flying a reality again.
“It is not really on our radar at the moment,” says one senior procurement executive with a major City financial institution, “because it probably would not be seen as good for our image to even be talking about our senior employees flying supersonic when the banks keep getting criticised on all sides”.
But he adds: “There would clearly be some advantages for a number of people for whom speed is important if a new Concorde was developed.”
Yet others are more firmly against a new generation of supersonic passenger aircraft. “There is no chance our group will fly with [a new] Concorde,” asserts Peggy Paternot, the Benelux travel manager for German chemicals and pharmaceutical group Bayer. She adds that flying supersonic would be “too expensive” and “inappropriate” as it would be “against compliancy with our global travel directives”.
Jef Robinson, senior travel buyer at US software group Citrix Systems, believes there would be a demand for supersonic air travel “if cost and emissions issues have been addressed…but not at the expense of the environment”. He thinks that flying a new version of Concorde “would certainly be seen as inappropriate for the vast majority of travellers and only justifiable in unique circumstances, if at all”.
Maxime Marembaud, air solutions manager for Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s EMEA region, is not convinced there will be sufficient demand for a new Concorde-style service. “I think the attractiveness of a supersonic revival for business travellers is quite low,” she says.
Moreover, she also feels that the environmental impact of supersonic travel would make a new SST “a difficult product to market to corporate bookers, especially as sustainable travel policies are becoming a badge of honour for companies, and supersonic travel may be detrimental to their carefully-crafted image”.
However, development of a new generation of supersonic aircraft could become outflanked by better use of existing rocket technology that bypasses the sonic boom issue over land. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture, which next year is due 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 or so, for those business travellers for whom speed still equals money...
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
TEN YEARS AFTER the last Concorde to fly arrived at Bristol’s Filton airfield, the aircraft is still awaiting a ‘proper’ home at the Bristol Aerospace Centre planned for the airfield following its controversial closure last year by BAE Systems.
Until then, many of the 20 production Concordes built in the 1970s and 1980s can now be found scattered at locations throughout the world, including Barbados, New York and Toulouse (where the French SSTs were built).
But the best place for utilising the enduring appeal of Concorde for a MICE programme is probably the Brooklands motorsport and aviation museum at Weybridge in Surrey. The Concorde it has on display was donated by British Airways and, although it was a test plane and not part of BA’s commercial fleet, it has been refurbished to provide an authentic experience for meetings, events and corporate hospitality.
WHAT KILLED CONCORDE?
What really killed Concorde was the simple fact that most countries in the world did not allow the aircraft to go supersonic overland, because of Concorde’s trademark sonic boom as it broke the sound barrier. Without such permissions, Concorde could not take effective advantage of its faster flying to destinations where its high-paying passengers wanted to fly, particularly to the lucrative US markets, but also to the Far East.
Today, aircraft emissions are at the forefront of environmental issues, with the EU at loggerheads with many other countries over its emissions trading scheme for airlines using its airspace (talks on the scheme were ongoing as BBT went to press). But even in its heyday, there were questions over Concorde’s environmental impact, focusing on potential damage to the ozone layer, given its capability to fly at up to 60,000ft.
Concorde was regarded as one of the safest commercial aircraft at the time – before Air France Flight 4590 crashed outside Paris in 2000, killing 113 people. The crash was caused by debris on the runway, but it exposed weaknesses in the aircraft’s fuel tanks and wings. Two fatal crashes of the Russian-built Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic aircraft – which bore a remarkable external similarity to Concorde – also made some aviation specialists wary, and safety concerns for a new generation of SST aircraft could conflict with corporate duty-of-care policies.