The Arrow

France’s Flights of Fancy No.1: 


Vanity comes before a fall. Despite hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money, Concorde came to earth as a commercial failure…

As pure engineering (mostly British), Concorde was a dream. It cruised at around 1,350 mph at an altitude of up to 60,000ft (11 miles). A crossing from Europe to New York takes less than three and a half hours – less than half the normal flying time for other jets. “The Americans may have their missiles”, said President Charles de Gaulle smugly, “but France has her Concorde.”

Concorde, whatever the implications of its name, was born out international diplomatic wrangling. In 1962, de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the EEC, a serious economic blow, so to keep him sweet while it tried again the British government ordered BAC (the British Aircraft Company) to partner with France’s Sud Aviation to make a supersonic airliner, a pet project of the ever-touchy French leader.

As far as the British were concerned, the deal was a loss-leader from the start. The miniscule French aviation industry was far less advanced than its neighbour over the Channel. Not only did BAC have to share its advanced avionics knowledge to Snecma, its smaller French equivalent, but also much of the job-creating construction of the plane’s body (which the French justified by claiming that the weather in their Toulouse plant was better for test flights).

Almost immediately, costs spiralled upwards. The projected, funded by the French and British taxpayer, was initially budgeted at £100 million. By the time the first production models rolled onto the tarmac in 1969, the real cost had risen to £1.1 billion (£11 billion in today’s money). Appalled by the overruns, British ministers had been desperate to pull out but were soothed by the assurance of their counterparts in Paris, responsible for marketing Concorde, that seventy-four orders for the aircraft had been received from sixteen airlines, half of them American. 

It was all pie in the sky. By the time the aircraft was ready to fly in 1976, none of the orders had been signed and, with oil prices rising, who wanted a plane that consumed four times more fuel than a 747? The then state-run airlines, Air France and British Airways had to take the planes, seven and five respectively, which were given to them by a nominal price of £1 and 1 franc each by their governments. The earthbound British and French taxpayer was lumbered with the write-off.

With only twenty ever built, Concorde became an expensive toy for the super rich flying the Atlantic to New York (since Concorde’s sonic boom broke both European and US noise regulations, it was never allowed to fly over land). British Airways, which was privatised in the mid-80s, just about made its service pay by charging £8,000 a ticket but the Air France, with a smaller fleet, was never allowed by the French state to make its prices economic, reportedly so that government ministers could continue travelling the Atlantic in style without voters becoming enraged by sky-high travel expenses appearing in the public accounts.

By the end of the century, the “plane of tomorrow” was looking rather old-fashioned. Air France could attract only enough business for one transatlantic flight a day (instead of the previous two), and even then the aircraft was often carrying only a couple of dozen paying passengers. Extra seats were often filled by upgrading subsonic first-class and business-class customers.

Vanity, like pride, has its fall. In July 2000, an ageing Concorde carrying a charter flight of German tourists, crashed on take-off at Charles de Gaulle airport. With 113 dead and faced with an astronomical bill for revamping its planes to 21st century safety standards, Air France finally pulled the planes out of service for good.


Lack of Concord: “It rises like a rocket but sells like a stick”, British Minister of Aviation, Julian Amery said, cursing the international deal that got his country entangled in one of France’s most costly vanity projects.

Concorde’s Death Knell: In July 2000, an Air France Concorde carrying 100 German tourists on a package trip to New York, crashed on take-off. A metal strip fallen from another plane, caused a tyre burst and debris ruptured the fuel tanks at high speed. The plane crashed into the Hotelissimo hotel in the town of Gonesse, north of the capital, killing another ten people two minutes after take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport. All Concordes, British and French, were immediately grounded. After a safety review, it was announced that protective adjustments to the aircraft would be necessary, a programme costing €50 million. It was decided to retire the plane rather than meet this prohibitive cost.

The End of Concorde

A British View: “The economics of Concorde were nonsense from the start, even with the hypothetical “hundreds" of sales. It was far too small, and the trail of destruction left on the ground when it flew supersonic meant that it could only do so over the sea: and the only ocean it had the range to cross was the Atlantic. Really, a 10-year-old could have worked out how unviable this project was but, of course, 10-year-olds are short on testosterone and high on common sense”. Daily Telegraph newspaper, 2003 

A French View: "Not only did it embody a certain conception of a victorious France but above all it symbolised modernity – triumphant in all the refined elegance of its curves”. Libération newspaper 2003


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