Why America Has No Concorde

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Gen. William F. McKee, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said his decision was “supported by competent Government evaluation and by the majority of the major United States airlines.” Well, so much for competent government evaluation. Everyone concerned had grossly underestimated the technical difficulties involved. Twenty-two months later, Boeing was forced to abandon its swing-wing design. Despite Herculean efforts, the company had been unable to come up with a swing-wing design light enough to carry a profitable passenger load. Boeing was forced to fall back on a delta-wing design.

This meant that while the Concorde was then scheduled to go into service in 1972, the Boeing SST couldn’t hope to do so until 1978. And 16 airlines, many of them American, already had options on no fewer than 74 Concordes. The Anglo-French plane was beginning to look like a winner that might dominate the skies for years before the American competition was even able to roll out of the hangar.

Moreover, the plate tectonics of politics in the Western world were now producing a major shift of their own. At the beginning of the SST project, the problems of sonic boom and fuel consumption had been casually dismissed by many as a price of progress. Now they suddenly loomed as potential project killers as the growing environmental movement picked the SST as one of its prime symbolic targets.

The advocates of the SST, notably William M. Magruder, who headed President Nixon’s SST office at the Department of Transportation, fought back. They argued balance of payment, technological leadership, and research benefits. Had the project been further along, with more money sunk in it and more jobs at stake, these arguments might have prevailed. But in 1970 the American SST was still, well, pie in the sky. On March 18, 1971, the House voted 215-204 to kill all funds for the plane. On March 24 the Senate voted 51-46 against restoring them. Sen. Barry Goldwater (who had retired as a major general in the Air Force Reserve) predicted that in 10 years the United States would no longer lead the world as an airframe manufacturer.

They were wrong. The Concorde had to undergo two expensive bouts of design changes. In 1973 Pan Am and TWA both dropped their options to buy Concordes. The airlines simply didn’t believe they could sell enough tickets to pay for the high cost of an aircraft that could hold only 100 passengers while using more fuel than the new Boeing 747. The 747 held up to 452 and had been flying profitably since 1970. And it was now clear that the Concorde, because of the sonic boom, would be allowed to operate supersonically only over oceans.

In the end, only British Airways and Air France, then government-owned and having no choice, agreed to buy Concordes. The British and French governments in effect had to eat billions of dollars in development costs. And only 16 were ever built.

At $10,000 per round-trip ticket, the Concorde quickly became little more than a status symbol for the very rich. It was the jumbo jets, led by the once-stopgap Boeing 747, that would rule the skies. Indeed, the jumbo still does. The European consortium Airbus Industrie has recently committed itself to spending $12 billion to design and build a superjumbo able to hold as many as 940 passengers. Meanwhile, Boeing has abandoned the latest SST project, the so-called High Speed Civil Transport program, again largely funded by the government. Why? Because “we can’t close the price-cost loop,” a Boeing spokesman explained. “You and I couldn’t afford to fly in the darn things.”