Flying objects, unless they are of the unidentified variety, rarely acquire the status of legends. The Concorde, which flew for the last time on Friday, was one of those rare birds. Its shape, size and the speed at which it sped across the sky endowed it with an aura that has never been bestowed on any aircraft since the Wright brothers taught men how to go up, up and away. Other than flying at double the speed of sound, there were other unique sensations associated with flying on the Concorde. The aircraft cruised at above 55,000 feet and on a clear day, frequent fliers said, one could from that height see the curvature of the earth. At that height, the flight was always smooth as there was little or no air turbulence. The Concorde was the transatlantic business travellers’ delight. It allowed them to fly from London in the morning and be back in London the same day. Breakfast at London and breakfast at New York was the Concorde’s selling point. It is not surprising to learn that the big investment banks and the multinationals were the real patrons of the Concorde. But even in its heyday, the Concorde was not a very popular option among businessmen and corporate executives hopping across the pond. On an average, it flew 75 per cent capacity. For most corporate budgets, the speed did not provide adequate returns when compared to the price paid. There was always the danger that flying the Concorde would become only a statement: seen on it would be more important than the business benefits that accrued by flying at Mach 2.
The Concorde — the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft — came into operation in 1976. Its flight path was always controversial. Environmentalists claimed that it damaged the earth’s ozone layer and that the sonic boom was a source of noise pollution. Families living near London’s Heathrow airport complained of the noise that the aircraft made during take off and landing. That the Concorde would be grounded became evident in the aftermath of the crash in Paris in July 2000 which claimed 114 lives. After the crash, the aircraft was seldom carrying more than two dozen paying passengers in the British Airways London-New York sector. Flying supersonic had suddenly lost its lure and few were willing to pay £8,000 for the experience. Cut in travel budgets contributed to its dwindling popularity. Maintenance had become frightfully expensive — a BA study showed that a refit of the aircraft would cost £17 million. Airbus, the makers of the Concorde, informed BA and Air France, the only two operators of the aircraft, that from the beginning of 2003 it would not be able to provide technical support at commercial price. The sleek and beautiful steel bird had become a white elephant.
The Concorde as a museum piece — which is what it will become in Manchester, New York, Bristol, Barbados and Seattle — will continue to evoke awe and nostalgia. The sight of the Concorde taking off was breathtaking and spectacular. Since Icarus put on wings, the romance of flying has gripped mankind’s imagination. Concorde not only embodied that romance but married it to modern man’s fascination for speed. The Concorde gave man a new high till Mammon brought machine and man down to reality.