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May 20, 2003

A public radio commentary

With the Concorde soon to stop flying, an era of air transport has come to an end. Unknown to most people the era ending is the 1950s, and the Concorde is one of the greatest failures ever to fly.

How could the Concorde be called a failure? After all, it flies higher and faster than any other commercial jet. Yet for its entire life, the Concorde ran in the red financially, although for sure it was a technological marvel.

With the largest engines of any commercial aircraft, it took off at a whopping 500 miles an hour, reaching that speed from a dead stop in thirty seconds. The sonic boom of its engines would disturb those living around the airport, so to prevent noise, the engines were throttled down only a few seconds after take off. This quiet, after incredible noise and acceleration, often terrified passengers who thought the plane's engines had failed. All they had to wait for, though, was for the Concorde to reach the Ocean: When, far away from any population, the plane came to life.

The pilots fired the afterburners and the plane zoomed to over 1000 miles per hour - nearly twice the speed of sound, and three times faster than a normal jet - and it soared to almost ten miles above the earth - a 737 flies at about half the height. So high was the Concorde that passengers could see the curvature of the earth.

In spite of this apparent success, the Concorde has several major limitations. Although, it was the world's fastest commercial plane, designed to jump over oceans, its fuel tanks didn't hold enough to fly over the world's largest body of water - the Pacific Ocean. In addition, it was tremendously inefficient: It used the same amount of fuel as a 747, yet held a fourth as many passengers.

But two bigger things killed the Concorde: The information revolution, and a large slow jet.

In the 1960s when the Concorde was developed, there was a need to hop around the world. Today, though, with cell phones, cheap long distance service, and express mail, there are many times where a person can just stay put, instead of hop a continent.

But most significantly, the Concorde missed the market. The Concorde was built when travel was for the elite, especially business travelers, CEOs and the like. Today travel is a mass market, where cheapness is prized over quickness. Two-thirds of travel now is for fun, not business. The Boeing company guessed this correctly. At the same time as the Concorde was developed, they built the first 747 - a plane that flies slower than its predecessor the 707, and whose successors - the 757, 767, and 777 - fly even slower than the 747.

Apparently the Boeing engineers, unlike the Concorde ones, had read Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises