With the promise of supersonic business jets about five years away, yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the last Concorde flight. The joint project between Britain and France, which made its first flight on May 24, 1976, from London Heathrow to Dulles International Airport, launched a nearly 30-year era of jet-setting. With prices hovering around $10,000 for a round-trip ticket ($20,000 in today’s dollars) the Concorde was equated with the wealthy and famous. Proponents pointed to ravel time between Europe and North America being cut in half.
In 1996, a British Airways Concorde crossed from New York to London in about two hours and 52 minutes—still the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a passenger plane. At its height, the Concorde hosted jet-setters such as Paul McCartney and Elizabeth Taylor, according to NPR.com. During the famous Live Aid concert in 1985, Phil Collins performed in London, jumped on the Concorde, and then played in Philadelphia on the same day. “I was in England this afternoon,” Collins said to the crowd as he took his seat behind the piano. “Funny old world, isn’t it?”
Though many other airlines placed orders for the aircraft, in the end only Air France and British Airways—operating seven aircraft each—flew the Concorde. JFK became the most regular route from London and Paris, but London to Bahrain, London to Dulles, and London to Miami via Washington also became common. Dallas also had service from Washington, but it was subsonic. London to Barbados, on Saturdays, was perhaps it most unusual route.
But the Concorde always had critics. It consumed four times more jet fuel than a Boeing 747, which could carry 500 passengers compared to the Concorde’s 100. The supersonic jet’s round-trip price was about $10,000 in the 1990s, or about twice that in today’s dollars. The sonic boom garnered global criticism, with Congress and many other governments banning overland supersonic travel.
An Air France Concorde crash at Charles de Gaulle Airport in 2000, which killed all 109 people aboard, forced all Concordes in service to be grounded for more than year. Shortly thereafter, 9/11 shook up the airline industry, making it hard for most travelers to justify the environmental costs and expenses of supersonic travel on an aging fleet.
“Commercial supersonic flight will become like travel to the moon: a goal achieved, and then long abandoned,” commentator Lester Reingold said on NPR’s Morning Edition in 2001.
But companies like Boom are hoping to bring back Mach-1-plus travel with a new generation of supersonic business jets. The delta wings and slender fuselage of the Boom Overture look similar to the Concorde’s—though the Overture’s wingspan is 23 feet wider, and it holds a third less passengers. The Concorde was faster, too, with the ability to reach up to twice the speed of sound. The Overture is designed to reach Mach 1.7. Boom predicts that the Overture will be able to serve more than 600 routes around the world in about half the time of subsonic commercial jets.
The company is working on ways to mitigate the sonic boom, while also developing its engines to fly on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which reduces carbon emissions by up to 90 percent over conventional jet fuel.
United and American Airlines have placed 35 orders for Overtures. Boom is planning to have the aircraft in commercial service by 2029.
Critics remain skeptical of the ambitious timeline and some question whether the Overture will ever fly.
Boom reports that it is ahead of schedule on the construction of its new production facility in North Carolina. Saudi Arabia’s Neom state-owned fund confirmed that it has invested an undisclosed amount in Boom, and the company said it has raised $700 million to date with the completion of its latest round. But putting the Overture into commercial service will require as much as $6 billion to $8 billion, Boom CEO Blake Scholl told Robb Report.
The company plans to do the first test flight of its XB-1 demonstration aircraft before the end of this year. The company says the first flight will be one of its milestones before attempting supersonic speeds in 2024.
In the meantime, 20 years after its final flight, the Concorde lives on as the symbol of supersonic flight. Its presence is mostly relegated to air museums and, of course, as the lead outdoor sculpture at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. But the concept could live on if Boom and other lesser-known supersonic start-ups are successful.