When the announcement comes, as it inevitably will someday soon, that the debt-gushing Anglo-French supersonic Concorde is to be consigned museums and mothballs, do not weep for what is already being depicted as a technological marvel ambushed by the new economics of energy.
Concorde was a poor idea when it was hastily conceived in 1962, and it was clearly denounced as such at the time; it has been a great burden, if not a middling financial disaster, for its national sponsors, and it would have been scuttled long ago, if not for British timidity and French delusions of what constitutes prestige in the modern world. The 1,400-mph,$60-million craft is unquestionably a convenience for the predominantly business audience for which it shaves a few hours from transit of the world's great waters. But even with state-owned British Airways and Air France -- the only operators of the Concorde -- taking big losses on every seat sold, there is no abundance of customers for one-way Washington-to-Paris tickets at $1,179 each. Which is why the British and French governments announced last week that after a total ouput of 16 planes since the first was rolled out in 1967, Concorde production would be terminated; of the 16, the five that remain unsold will be "allocated" to the two nationalized airlines, though what they will do with them is unclear, since British Airways is already losing over $30 million a year on its Concorde fleet, and it is doubtful that Air France is doing any better.
In viewing Concorde's fiscal debacle, there is no need to rely on the unseemliness of hindsight to conclude that it never should have happened; there were plenty of warnings and reservations before and after the two countries entered into their peculiar partnership.
Though aeronautical researchers had been tinkering since World War II with designs for commercial supersonic flight, the limited market potential and formidable costs created natural restraints. That changed, however, in 1962, when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was seeking to get Britain into the Common Market. Charles de Gaulle, obsessed with big technology as the measure of national standings, agreed that a 50-50 collaboration on a supersonic transport would be sound evidence of Britain's devotion to Europe. The deal on Concorde was closed in November 1962, on the basis of a quickly drawn up 20-page plan that bound the two countries to build a supersonic airplane, though details were so sparse that the range of the aircraft was omitted. What was not omitted was a provision that specified that neither partner could get out without the other's permission; the French wrote that one. Then, 11 weeks later, De Gaulle vetoed Britain's admission to the Market.
In 1964, the new Wilson government, noting that Concorde's development costs had already doubled beyond the original estimates -- they would eventually go up tenfold, to a total of $2.2 billion -- wanted out; but the French cited the no-escape clause and threatened legal action.
And so it went over the years, with the British pleading to get out, and the French insisting that the project must go on -- and it did.
Along the way, it was repeatedly pointed out that the aluminum-skinned Concorde represented a technological dead end, that evolution to higher speeds would require a shift to new and complex alloys and an overall redesign. And it was also pointed out that Concorde, with a seating capacity of only 100 or so (depending on landing and takeoff conditions) could not easily achieve a profitable rate of utilization -- which has turned out to be the case. The critics also argued that, if the aim of Concorde was to challenge American domination of commercial aircraft sales, the plunge into a limited market was as foolhardy as could be, and this, too, turned out to be correct. It was only after the folly of Concorde was evident even to the French that Europe got together and formed an industrial consortium, Airbus Industrie, that has begun to compete successfully against American producers of subsonic commercial transports.
Meanwhile, Concorde flies, but it's apparent that it's time is running out.