Forty years ago, on January 21, 1976, the Concorde made its first passenger flight. The magnificent lines of this airplane still seem timeless, much as the Lockheed Constellation a few generations before. The aircraft remains one of the most beautiful commercial aircraft to ever take to the skies.
Of course, back then, low fuel prices enabled supersonic flight. In today’s market, with aviation fuel down to $1.25 per gallon and dropping, inflation adjusted fuel is at the same level as in the 1970s. Unfortunately, we don’t have new technology to replace the Concorde, which was quite productive for those who could afford to fly it. I remember fondly one very productive day. I began with a breakfast meeting in Paris, an 11am Concorde flight to New York landing at 8:30am in the morning for a meeting and lunch, and then returning to my office near Boston in the afternoon for a two-hour meeting to end the day. As a productivity enhancer, you couldn’t beat Concorde for international travel across the pond. While today expanded security requirements would likely take some of the productivity benefits away, it would still be much better than available alternatives.
When did our technology innovation move from pushing the frontiers to incremental improvements in economics? The reason we fly is to get from point A to point B faster – otherwise we’d drive or take a train. But we’ve had no new supersonic aircraft since the Concorde and Tu-144 in the 1970s. While a couple of business aircraft manufacturers are busy designing supersonic business jets, the two large OEMs have focused on fuel efficiency aircraft rather than break new ground. Yes, the Concorde program wasn’t profitable, but it certainly helped place Europe firmly on the map for advanced technology.
Could low fuel prices that appear to be here to stay begin to change the economics of supersonic flight and make the concept feasible once again? I for one, miss Concorde and certainly hope so.