The retirement of the Concorde in 2003 proved a gathering of eagles the likes of which the world will not see again.
Against a colorful October sunset, the five remaining operational Concordes came together for one last time on October 24 to acknowledge the fall of night for supersonic airline travel.
The arrival of BA002 from New York underscored a simple fact: those of us who had never flown on a supersonic airliner were unlikely to do so for a long, long time. Hard economics had consigned another dream of the 60s to the museums.
For former British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington, it was a bittersweet celebration and one he watched from the ground.
His decision to lay to rest the supersonic flagship after more than a quarter of a century of service was made all the more poignant by the knowledge the world would not see its like again for the foreseeable future.
It was not a decision he had expected to make so soon after taking the helm at BA in 2000 and it was a difficult one.
As the Australian-born airline veteran noted at the time, Concorde was an icon for both BA and Britain as well as “an aeroplane ahead of her time in every way”.
But 15 years on, he remains adamant the logic of the decision to ground the plane was irrefutable and that the aircraft’s time had come by 2003.
The timing, he told AirlineRatings in an interview to mark the anniversary, was the result of a combination of factors and not just the spectacular crash of an Air France plane in 2000.
These included the September 11 terrorist attacks, the fragility of age, falling demand and spiraling operating costs.
With a top speed of Mach 2 and a cruising altitude of more than 50,000ft, Concorde flew higher and faster than any other passenger aircraft. It flew faster than the world turned; faster, even, than a rifle bullet.
But it was a concept born in the cheap oil environment of the 1960s and the cost of moving a passenger 1km on the fuel-hungry 1960s technology aircraft was about eight times the cost of doing the same on a Boeing 777.
Its return to service also coincided with a startling 80 percent fall in use by the major corporate customers — bankers, lawyers and captains of industry — who provided its financial lifeblood.
BA had reduced Concorde services from two a day to one and was struggling to fill even that: the day BA announced it would be retiring the plane there were 20 passengers on board. And that was far from atypical.
This was partly due to a long period out of service after an Air France aircraft crashed in flames on take-off from Paris in July 2000,
Although he didn’t speak publicly about it the time, Eddington believes fears spurred by the New York terrorist attacks in September 2001 also contributed to keeping customers away.
The attacks caused a general downturn in the global aviation market but Eddington said some people were also worried the iconic plane could be a vulnerable terrorist target.
The final straw was a study of the aging aircraft by Airbus that recommended an enhanced maintenance schedule that added 20 million pounds ($US26m ) to an already expensive maintenance program worth more than 50 million pounds.
“As the aeroplane got older, the maintenance bill went up quite substantially as aeroplanes do,” Eddington said. “So the revenue went down and the maintenance bill went up.”
The decision ended a long battle to keep Concorde flying. Even after the Air France crash, no-one was keener than Eddington to keep the sleek, needle-nosed flagship flying.
He and his staff battled for more than a year to finally satisfy the regulators who had grounded Concorde that it should return to service.
Everyone at BA worked hard to get the plane back in the air, introducing modifications that included lining the fuel tanks with Kevlar, new Michelin tires and reinforcement around some electrical leads running down the undercarriage.
Ultimately, it was not enough and more than five million Britons would tune in to a live telecast, joining thousands who turned up at Heathrow, to watch the aviation industry’s flirtation with commercial supersonic travel grind to halt.
Graceful to the end, Concorde bowed out from scheduled service with an understated, textbook touchdown rather than the window-shaking sonic boom that heralded its first flight in 1969.
The arrival of three Concordes in quick succession brought the British capital to a halt. The welcome from air traffic control as the historic final flight touched down at 4.05 pm London time — “The Eagles have landed. Welcome home” — echoed the words used in another monumental but abandoned technological feat, the Apollo moon landing.
The airliner’s six-month farewell program saw flights packed with people willing to part with thousands of dollars for a trip of a lifetime.
The final flights — from the US, Edinburgh and a return trip from Heathrow — carried staff, business leaders and celebrities such as actress Joan Collins and model Christie Brinkley.
Also on board BA 002 was an American who paid $US60,300 for the last two tickets on the final flight.
“We had three flights,” Eddington recalled. “We had one that came in from New York, the regularly scheduled service, we had a flight of staff who had won the lottery and the flight of all the old and bold who had been involved in the introduction of the aeroplane – the test pilots, the design engineers, the politicians.’’
The former BA boss says his view that Concorde was a remarkable aircraft has never changed.
“To think that you could have breakfast in London, get on Concorde, fly to New York and because the time difference was five hours and the flight was three- three and a half, you’d get to New York and have breakfast in New York,’’ he said.
“When we put ours back into service we invited a whole group of its regular customers in November 2001 I reckon. One of them was David Frost, a wonderful man.
“David said to me that he had a show in New York and a show in London, a television show he did live television in both cities, and the only way he could make it work was to fly Concorde.”
After BA and Air France jointly announced the decision to ground the Concorde fleet in April 2003, the French ended scheduled flights in May.
But the British carrier decided to keep flying commercially until October and Eddington, who flew in the plane half a dozen times, is still happy about that decision.
“We knew a lot of people had a Concorde flight on their bucket list so we kept operating for six months on the New York route,’’ he said.
“We also put some special fares in the market where people would travel Concorde one way and sub-sonically the other so they could have a taste of it.
“It was a six-month journey and a lot of people got to travel on it in that time and I was delighted for them.”
The loss of the supersonic flagship was deeply felt at the British carrier and Eddington said one reason for this was its close link with the airline’s brand.
“It was a terrific aeroplane, it was real Ferrari, and I think BA used it brilliantly,’’ he said. “Lord (Colin) Marshall, who was chairman for most of my time there, was fantastic and he understood how important Concorde was to the company and the brand.”
The aviation veteran also had high praise for the employees who crewed and maintained the supersonic jetliner.
“The men and women who looked after it and flew it in my view did the most wonderful job,’’ he said.
“When you went into the hangar and looked at the aeroplanes being serviced and maintained, you realized how iconic it was but you also realized how attached the people involved in its operation, in every way, were to it.
“I was no different to them.”
Although Concorde seemed to bring the shutter down on supersonic travel, companies such as Aerion Supersonic and Boom are now trying to revive the technology in the business jet and small airliner markets.
So does Eddington believe they will succeed?
“I hope so, but I don’t know,’’ he said. “Again, the challenges that bedeviled Concorde — the sonic boom and the challenge of efficiency — remain, particularly when fuel prices are high.
“The whole focus both from the airframe manufacturers and the engine manufacturers has been to stick at Mach 0.8, Mach 0.85– somewhere in that range — and to just fly more and more efficiently.
“That’s in part because aviation’s very conscious of its global emissions and so there’s a desire to be more environmentally conscious.
“And by definition, that’s one of the reasons so many people can fly today. In real terms, airfares are much cheaper than they were when you and I first started flying.”