CONCORDE IS MORE than the name of a particular kind of aircraft. It has also become a symbol: to its British and French owners, a symbol of unfair treatment by Americans, and to a great number of Americans (especially New Yorkers), a symbol of the threat that modern-day technology holds for their environment. All the intense emotions such feelings generate are being brought into play this week with the first operations of the Concorde at Kennedy International Airport. If the leaders of the anti-Concorde citizen groups are to be believed, there will be heightened controversy, perhaps later this week and certainly in late November when the Concorde is to be put into regular passenger service between New York and London/Paris.
"We're fast approaching Armageddon," one of those leaders said in New York Monday. He added that while there was not enough time to organize a mass protect against yesterday's arrival flight, in a couple of weeks "we'll be out there with thousands of cars." Even the governor of New York, caught up in the spirit of protest, said last week that if the federal government ordered the Concorde into Kennedy, "they'd better have the 82d Airborne with it to keep the people from choking up the airport."
These, we are afraid, are not idle works. While some New Yorkers now know how loud the noise is when the airplane lands (it is about the same level as that made by some other jets), they have yet to experience the sound it makes on takeoff. We know from the experience at Dulles Airport that the sound will be louder; we do not know whether it will be more objectionable (or less objectionable, as the plane's owners claim) than the noise generated by the other airplanes that land routinely at Kennedy. In one sense, it makes little difference - most New Yorkers within earshot of Kennedy, we suspect, have already pretty much decided that the roar and whine of the Concorde - whatever the decibel count may turn out to be - is an intolerable addition to the aircraft noise already inflicted upon them by subsonic jets. The Concorde, in other words, is already established in their minds as the final insult - the place to draw the line on environmental noise. And so they are now denouncing just about everyone in sight, except those political figures who have joined them and who, in so doing, have failed to provide leadership on what is, at best, a difficult decision. If the situation around Kennedy Airport gets out of hand during one of the demonstrations, the responsibility will rest less with the federal government than with those who egged on the protesters by raising false hopes.
We do not see the decision to let the Concorde operate at some American airports over the next eight years as a catastrophic setbacks to efforts to reduce noise, even airport noise. In one sense, that setback occurred long before the Concorde arrived; it occurred when jets were introduced and when airport managers failed to enforce their noise standards against American aircraft (that, of course, is the heart of the British-French claim of unfairness). The classic example is Washington, where the greatest airport noise-pollution problem comes from the jets at National, not the Concorde at Dulles.
In a larger sense, however, it seems to us that the defeat of the "environmentalists" in the battle against the Concorde foreshadows a victory in the war against airport noise. Given the struggle that the British and French have gone through with that airplane, no manufacturer of aircraft is likely to take a chance in the future on extremely noisy engines. The people at Kennedy Airport can guarantee as much by drawing up legitimate noise standards to deal with the aggregate racket caused by all aircraft, rather than standards designed to keep out just one plane that, at worst, would add only marginally to the aircraft noise level in and around Kennedy Airport. If that happens - and it will, if reasoned judgment replace the current emotional binge - the symbolism of the Concorde can become part of the solution of the far larger problem of aircraft noise.