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Supersonic travel becomes a memory

Stewart Mandy
UK –
October 25, 2003.

'This may be the first time in history that a piece of technology is being retired without something better to replace it'.

The era of supersonic passenger flight ended on Friday, much as it had begun 34 years ago, with awestruck crowds, applause, and some tears. At 4.06pm London time, on Friday October 24, 2003, British Airways flight BA 002 from New York landed at Heathrow airport, and in doing so, Concorde passed into history.

On 2 March 1969, a BBC commentator watching the first Anglo-French Concorde scream down a runway outside Toulouse announced the arrival of a new era in air travel with the words: "She flies, she flies!" A month later, hundreds of onlookers watched from the perimeter of Filton airfield near Bristol when Concorde made her maiden flight in Britain. Yesterday, the most common phrase among the 5,000 onlookers gathered to watch the occasion was: "Isn't it sad?"

The arrival of the flight was the choreographed finale of a day-long farewell to the supersonic jet. Within the space of seven minutes, three Concordes, - two excursions carrying the winners of a BA competition and BA002 - grew from dots in the sky to land in quick succession. For those few minutes, Heathrow, which handles 60 million passengers a year, stood still. Hundreds of airport staff, dressed in spotless fluorescent jackets, could be seen forming an impromptu guard of honor as the planes taxied to a maintenance hangar for one last glitzy reception.

On board the New York flight, which had departed from JFK airport after passing through jets of red, white and blue water, were 100 of the sort of passengers with which Concorde flights have become synonymous. There was the Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, the model Jodie Kidd, the broadcaster and supersonic veteran Sir David Frost and the actress Joan Collins. All mourned the passing of what had become the transatlantic shuttle of a wealthy elite, on which those able to pay $12,000 for a return flight were served two different vintages of champagne and smoked salmon with caviar for breakfast.

A few years ago, this day would have been unthinkable, when British Airways was publicly stating their plans to keep the aircraft flying for another 25 years. The beginning of the end came on July 25, 2000 when moments after take off from Paris Charles de Gaulle, a chartered Air France Concorde, full of German tourists, crashed into a hotel. September 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks in the US were the final nail in the coffin.

The Concorde was supposed to revolutionize the way we all traveled, and the manufacturers had expected to sell at least 120 aircraft around the world. In the end, only British Airways and Air France bought the aircraft, with seven examples each. Far from ever becoming a common way to travel, Concorde became the haunt of supermodels, businessmen, and celebrities.

What happens now? It’s hard to pity the complaining supermodels, who will now have to spend 6 hours crossing the Atlantic in the comfort of a luxurious first class cabin on a 747. The sad part is the end of the era of supersonic passenger travel; the Concorde having endured years beyond it’s only competitor, the Soviet TU-144 which was withdrawn from service well before the breakup of the Soviet Union. The American example never left the drawing board. Perhaps even more significant is that this may be the first time in history that a piece of technology is being retired without something better to replace it. Bigger, better, faster, has always been the progression, and the departure of Concorde from our skies leaves a strange and empty void. Bigger certainly exists. The Concorde only carried 100 passengers. Better is a matter of personal taste and interpretation, but it is hard to consider any of today’s jets as ‘better’ than Concorde. Faster? No. Not even close.

The fastest commercial jets today fly less than half the speed of the Concorde.
In fact, it need not have ended yesterday. Since British Airways announced the end of Concorde service, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and it’s effervescent chairman Sir Richard Branson, always one to rush in where other fear to tread, have been campaigning to purchase the aircraft from British Airways and continue the service. British Airways steadfastly refused, and the British government declined to intervene, despite the fact that the aircraft effectively belong to the British public; the costs of the development having been covered by the government of the day when orders failed to materialize. Obviously scared that Sir Richard might succeed where they had failed, i.e. in making a commercial success of the aircraft, British Airways preferred to allow the era of supersonic passenger transport to end.
Goodbye Concorde. We will miss you.
© Stewart Mandy May 2003
*About the author: Stewart Mandy is an accomplished international freelance journalist and travel writer. He is the Chief Editor of rolling pin CRUISE magazine. He has been published in various print and online publications, on a wide variety of topics including travel, hospitality, industry specific topics, and current affairs. He is always available for worldwide assignment, and all offers and story ideas will be considered. He can be reached by email at or via his websites at or

Editors Note: One of the main reasons for retirement is that the French refuse to issue an aviation certifacte for the Concorde or contine to provide spares for it (which they alone control) and in the end an old jet will need a lot of spares.

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