The Concorde was going to change the way we fly. Being able to cross oceans in mere hours, beating all known methods of transport when it came to speed, it was a leapfrog that airlines couldn’t afford to miss.
But the Concorde actually had far more orders beyond the two carriers: British Airways and Air France, who flew it.
Who were these other airlines? Where would they have flown the plane, and why did these deliveries never happen?
A bit of history …
On a brisk winter morning in 1972, a supersonic flying machine touched down in Sydney, Australia. The Concorde, and the future of aviation had arrived down under. Officials at Qantas lined up, to place at this point, a no brainer order, for the jet that would change travel forever.
So far, the plane had been ordered by both British Airways and Air France, whose parent countries had spent billions of dollars developing the airframe. But no other airline had managed yet to receive the aircraft. Both airlines had 7 aircraft each.
The first option agreement after these two airlines was Pan Am, who optioned six aircraft in 1963, and then optioned another two in 1966. Pan Am would have used these like Air France and BA to cross to Europe over the ocean.
Continental followed with an option for three, as well as TWA who optioned six. American Airlines also had options, for six aircraft but seemingly only after, Rival Pan Am made the first move.
Near the end of the first year, Middle Eastern carrier MEA optioned four aircraft from France. They would operate the plane from Beirut to New York, landing in Toulouse – and a two-hour trip to London.
MEA’s Concorde philosophy was summed up, by the airline’s leadership at that time, as follows: “Getting the president of an American oil company to fly to New York in eight hours instead of fourteen is something to sell. Today, what do we offer for the 40 per cent high first-class fare? A wider chair and a free whisky. To offer eight instead of fourteen hours makes it worth 40 per cent more. That is how we see the Concorde. We hope and pray that it will work because it will be a great thing for MEA, and for the Lebanon.”
In 1964, Qantas would option four aircraft. they would have used the plane for flights over the outback to Singapore – although many said that the range wouldn’t quite work. But we will get to that later.
Following Qantas, we have Air India with two options and Japan Airlines with three. Japan being surrounded by water would be spoiled for choice – seemingly, supersonic travel is made for the Asian island nation.
Forcing their way to Airbus on seemingly the same weekend, Eastern airlines with two options, which would expand to six, and would quickly be followed by United the very next day with six.
Braniff would close out the year with options for three aircraft. During its tenure, Braniff would actually hire the Concorde to run a few promotional flights over three years from Washington to Dallas, operating the aircraft with its own crews. As the plane wasn’t allowed to go supersonic, the pilots were not trained in its faster operation – imagine sitting behind the controls of one of the most powerful planes and not being able to throttle it up!
Lufthansa would round out the major orders of three aircraft, followed by Sabena with two aircraft, and Air Canada with four.
There was also an option for three aircraft from the Chinese government, which is dubious if it would have gone ahead in 1972. The plane was planned to be used to fly VIPs and limited routes from Beijing.
Now, this is seriously rumor territory, but some say that FedEx also looked at using the Concorde to transfer packages super quickly over oceans, with a fleet of ten aircraft. But the plane didn’t have a cargo door and wouldn’t have been rated to fly far at all with full cargo – knowing the modern world’s desire for same day shipping, we wouldn’t rule out how useful it would have been.
The last airline that had options for the Concorde was Iran Air. The airline at the time was obsessed with having the biggest and greatest aircraft, and having two supersonic jets, plus a single option was no issue for them. These orders were likely made because the Shar of Iran was close with France and wanted to maintain good relations, but it’s also possible that he simply wanted them for his ego – after all, we all know what happened a few short years later with the Iran revolution.
All we know was that that the aircraft would have been used for routes linking to Europe, and it was hired for that purpose a few times. Tehran to North America would have been outside of the range. Not to say that the jet could have even flown overland due to the sonic boom, but that’s a topic for another video.
It seemed that the Concorde dream was in full swing, with 44 options across 10 airlines, short of the 150 needed for the program to break even, but a good start none-the-less. But these options would never be confirmed, and like a deck of cards, a slight nudge would make them all fall.
You see, these ‘orders’ were options, and some of them were as vague as a promise from a friend to help you move house – as in, not solid at all.
In 1973, rising oil prices led to the Concorde becoming increasingly unprofitable, and the sonic boom became a political football no country wanted to be left holding. Besides, the plane was also growing far more expensive, its price tripling from $20 million US to $60 million US, $349 million today.
This led launch customer Pan Am to reconsider its options, and later that year outright cancel them. The carrier wasn’t doing well at the time, and it wasn’t able to secure finance to go forward with the orders if it wanted to. The airline had been quoted a price for $46 million per Concorde, as opposed to the cheaper $25 million per new 747 that carried three times as many passengers.
With Pan Am losing faith in the program, other North American operators, American Airlines, Continental, United Airlines and Air Canada TWA and Braniff would follow suit. TWA would cancel their options within minutes of Pan Am – very much leading to the idea that all these carriers were deep in discussion to abandon the supersonic dream. Although Braniff would still go onto use the Concorde many years later as a promotion tool, as noted earlier.
Sir George Edwards, chairman of British Aircraft Corporation, which along with France’s Aerospatiale was building the Concorde: “We should not describe this as a fatal blow, but it’s a hell of a setback.”
Without rivals using the Concorde in the Pacific, Japan didn’t really need the plane. And with Japan not ordering it, this led to China failing to make payments on its options and having its options cancelled by 1980.
Other operators like MEA would let options expire as they did not want to be stuck with a somewhat experimental aircraft. These airlines also saw that if British Airways and Air France, who were guinea pigs, could make the Concorde profitable then they could always reorder the aircraft. Plus, Boeing and others like Russia were working on their own version of the Concorde, dubbed the second-generation supersonic jet, that would be cleaner, deal with the issues with sonic boom and also have much better performance. Planes that might have been bought for cheaper.
It seemed that being patient was the best solution.
The last option order on this list is special, because it was actually … never cancelled. That’s right, the Qantas order for four supersonic jets is still technically on the books and Qantas could very well demand that the successor Airbus build them these jets. Although we all know that will never happen. Qantas would go on to instead invest in the 747 for its pacific aspirations.
The Concorde would go on to serve a unique slice of the market through carrier British Airways and Air France. It would be rented by the carriers above for special routes now and again, like Singapore who would even pay half of the plane operating it across Asia; as well as Pepsi – yes the soft drink, who would use the plane as a promotional billboard – its deep blue livery had to be specially certified as they were scared it would melt off during supersonic flight.
But no other airline would acquire the plane for themselves, even with attempts as recent as 2003 to get it.
A bit of modern history …
That’s right, our list doesn’t stop here! In 2003, Richard Branson tried to acquire the retiring Concorde jets from British Airways, following the crash of Air France 4590 and the downturn of the aviation industry following 9/11. He reasoned that the planes were being retired, why not take on the supersonic mantle and keep them flying – although in bright virgin Atlantic colors.
The billionaire first offered British Airways a single pound, or $1.53 for the planes – the equivalent he claimed British Airways had paid for the plane to acquire them in the first place. He claimed that a special requirement in the British Airways’ privatization agreement back in the 80s said that “if BA no longer wanted Concorde, then another British airline should be allowed to operate the supersonic fleet.”
When BA dismissed the offer, he then switched it up to a million pounds, and eventually five million pounds per aircraft – still not what they were worth, but if the planes were heading to a museum, it would be worthwhile. The planes would have remained on the New York to London route, a cornerstone market for Virgin Atlantic. Although many critics said that Mr. Branson would have struggled to maintain the planes especially since the spare parts required to fly were discontinued by Airbus that very year – one of the reasons why pressure was on to retire the plane.
If only …
Looking back at history, we can see that the Concorde would have had a very different future if only a few key players had remained. If Pan Am had kept its order and been financially solvent, then North America would have been a key investor in the Concorde success. Not to be left behind in the sonic boom wake, other carriers in North America would have at least followed on and the Boeing 2707 would have come out of the workshop at any cost to stay competitive.
If oil prices had not risen and Iran Air had kept its order, we could have also seen the rest of Asia follow suit, and that mystery Qantas option for four planes fulfilled – leading to a world where you can get where you need to be fast.
With smaller and faster jets, the Boeing 747 would have been regulated to cargo operations and likely the A380 would never have been built – appearing only on this channel as a crazy never built project for all of us to captively watch in awe – a strange parallel future indeed.
Today’s video-article skipped over a few other reasons why the Concorde failed in the market, from countries using the sonic boom issue to leverage landing slots, such as India and Malaysia, leading to the demise of the flight model, as well as a high-profile crash of the Russian Tu-144, which we will cover in another video.
But thanks so much for making it this far, and learning that the Concorde really was about to become a huge success – only for a few very interesting twists of history.
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