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The Concorde: End of an Era

The Concorde took off from New York this morning and arrived in London three-and-a-half hours later, ending its final passenger flight. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Bob Van der Linden about the supersonic rise and rapid fall of the only commercial aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound.

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  • PAUL DAVIES:

    BA 002 leaves John F. Kennedy for the very last time. Getting American consent for the very first Concorde flight in New York strained relationships between Britain and the U.S.A. A swan song was the national event on both sides of the Atlantic. Hours before Concorde left New York, crowds were gathering at Heathrow for a retirement party. Among them, Carol Rockwell, who's been bringing her family to the airport to see Concorde for years and was determined they would see her last flight.

  • CAROL ROCKWELL:

    It's something they're not going to see again, so they can pass it on to their children in the future.

  • PAUL DAVIES:

    Two relatively short round-trip Concorde flights out of Heathrow were part of this special day. A treat for the enthusiasts and for a man who as a government minister had helped push through the Concorde project and today was a privileged passenger.

    TONY BENN, Former Labor & Technology Minister: In a way, we are commemorating the end of Britain as a manufacturing nation, when Britain used to launch ships and build cars and computers and motor bikes. And now we've let it slip through our fingers. But the Concorde is the high peak, one of the wonders of the modern world.

  • PAUL DAVIES:

    The high peak of the day was the synchronized return of the three Concordes, following each other out of the October sky. After the first touchdown, the excitement proved too much for some of the enthusiasts, who broke through the cordons for an even closer view. (Applause)

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Jeffrey Brown has more on the Concorde.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Concorde was conceived and built by the British and French governments, and began commercial service in 1976. It was intended to serve as just the beginning of a brand new era of jet travel. The Concorde flew 11 miles above the earth, at cruising speeds of up to 1,350 miles an hour. With the time difference, passengers flying from London to New York would arrive an hour earlier than they'd left.

  • FLIGHT ATTENDANT:

    Good morning to you. Nice to see you. Mind your head as you board.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    They would also pay a small fortune for the privilege, $6,000 one way, $9,000 or more round trip. With its sonic booms, the Concorde was also noisy, a factor that kept it from being permitted to fly overland routes. In 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed after takeoff from Paris, killing 113 people. It would be the only mark on the plane's overall safety record. In the end, only 20 Concordes were ever built, the last in 1979, but only ever 14 entered service.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Ladies and gentlemen, the captain …

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It continued on for almost 30 years as a symbol of technological achievement and luxury travel — fine dining and champagne were staples. But in April of this year, British Airways and Air France announced they would retire the jets, citing ever higher costs and ever diminishing returns. Today, British Airways Chairman Lord Marshall had this to say:

  • LORD COLIN MARSHALL, Chairman British Airways:

    It is of course sad that this is the end, at least for some, probably for some considerable period of time, of supersonic commercial flight.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Many of the jets themselves will be given to museums. One is already sitting in the soon-to-open Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, near Dulles Airport in northern Virginia.

    I talked there with historian Bob Van der Linden, a curator at the museum. Take us back in time, if you would, to when the Concorde first appeared. Tell us about the excitement at that time.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Well, it was very exciting because the Concorde, when it entered service in the mid-1970s, looked to be the future of air travel. It was hoped that with the supersonic transport, you could now cross the Atlantic in half the time, and, hopefully, fly around the world in half the time, and just bring nations closer together and improve commerce, et cetera, et cetera. That was the hope. The SST was the hope of the future and it lasted about a quarter of a century, but that was about it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    People were also captivated by it and still are by its beauty.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    It is a stunningly beautiful airplane, I cannot think of any airplane that looks any better than that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So technologically, people looked at it as a tremendous advance?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Yes, indeed, and that was a part of the reason it was built. It was an attempt by Great Britain and France to demonstrate their expertise in aeronautics. And it was an excellent demonstration, because it's a magnificent machine.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One writer almost saw it as a response to the American space program.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Indeed, you could see it as that. While the United States and the Soviet Union were wrapped up in the space race, clearly, nations saw the aerospace industry as one means of showing their means and prowess in technology and that way, you know, showing the way to the future. And this looked to be the way to the future, and it was hoped that perhaps they could just technologically overcome American ascendancy with just one big step.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, you have flown it. What is it like? Give us a feel for what it's like.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    It's truly remarkable. You're flying at fifty to sixty thousand feet, you're doing Mach 2, actually a little quicker than that and you don't know it. You just don't know it. The service is impeccable. The only hint that you're going so fast is the dial up front, the Mach meter, which says you're doing Mach 2. That and you feel the window next to you and it's quite hot, it's well over 100 degrees.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    100 degrees inside.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    On the inside, you can just feel the heat just glowing off the windshield, off the window. And also at high altitude, you can, when the sky was clear, it wasn't on my flight, you could see the curvature of the earth. We were high enough that I could look up and see the sky was no longer blue, it was a very, very dark purple. So that did give you some idea this was not an ordinary airplane.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The inside, for all the glamorous idea of it, the inside is not all that luxurious?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    It's very straightforward. It's actually a very small cabin. It had to be, because you're trying to build a very fast airplane, so it was aerodynamics second, and creature comfort second, but it only seats four across; only held about 100 people. The seats are very comfortable, there's a lot of leg room, but they're rather narrow.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now in the popular imagination, the Concorde was always about glamour. It was the rich who took it, it was the celebrities.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Yes, and that's all who took it. You know, it was so expensive that only the rich and the celebrities could fly it, or, you know, or the businessman. And it never did reach the ordinary person. That was not its intent. Originally, it was hoped that the next generation of supersonic transport could bring the cost down and more and more people could fly, but that never happened.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Explain that a little bit more, if you would, the economics of the Concorde. Why did it cost so much per ticket?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Well, it's expensive, primarily because of the fuel costs. When you're going supersonic, when you go to trans-sonic and supersonic speeds, the drag on the aircraft rises exponentially and to overcome that drag requires a great deal more power. And power means more fuel and more fuel means more cost. It's estimated that it takes about one ton of fuel per passenger to fly across the Atlantic, and that's on a full airplane.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A ton of fuel per passenger?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    One ton of fuel per passenger.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So that's a lot of money per passenger.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    A lot of money, mm-hmm.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So was it in the end, the high cost, no one could figure out a business model to make it work?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    That's it, it was strictly the high cost. It's a 27-year-old airplane and the maintenance costs were getting expensive. The manufacturer could no longer support it. They were using other Concordes to cannibalize for parts. It was just too expensive to operate.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, especially in an era where most of us are finding rather cheap airfares or looking for cheap airfares?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Yes, that has a very great deal to do with it. When it costs $6,000 to fly across the Atlantic — mind you in less than only four hours, but ordinary ticket, $600 or less — even though it takes seven or eight hours, most people are going to choose the cheaper fare.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This was a very safe airline. One major crash in 2000, did that help lead to its demise?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Very much so, very much so. The aircraft was taken out of service for a year-and-a-half and by the time it came back into service, it was after 9/11, so the limited market that existed for it, in the first place shrank dramatically.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Ironically, a very, a relatively safe technological …

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    A very safe airplane. They had one fatal accident its whole career. The irony is because so few of them flew, and relatively speaking, they didn't fly very many hours, it went, in that one accident, from being the safest airliner in the sky to being one of the least safe. Purely, purely statistically. But just one fatal accident, but that was enough.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now the U.S., long ago, looked at developing a supersonic transport, rejected it.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Mm-hmm.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is anything happening now? Is there anything to replace this?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    There's no supersonic transport on the horizon any time soon. The major manufacturer's Airbus and Boeing are building an efficient aircraft; a big efficient aircraft, subsonic aircraft. There are no plans for a supersonic transport on the drawing board anywhere. At least not feasible ones.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So it's really the end of an era?

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    This is, indeed, an end of an era.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Okay, Bob Van der Linden, thanks for joining us.

  • BOB VAN DER LINDEN:

    Thank you for having me.

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