Supersonic passenger jet Concorde touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport 15 years ago today at the end of its last ever commercial flight.
It marked the end of 27 years of supersonic passenger flight – a luxury which came at a considerable price and which, despite advances in technology, has not been repeated since.
The final transatlantic flight carried 100 celebrities from New York and touched down at Heathrow at 4-05pm, greeted by thousands of aviation enthusiasts gathered near the runway and on specially- built grandstands. Among the passengers was actress Joan Collins, who had flown on Concorde several times and described the end of the supersonic service as “tragic”.
“The first time I ever flew Concorde was a bit of a white knuckle ride,” she said. “I’m more used to it now, it’s so wonderful to make the journey in three-and-a-half hours.”
For most people, the dream of flying on Concorde would remain just that, with tickets for a return flight across the Atlantic priced at around $12,000 – twice the cost of flying first class on a conventional jet. Despite such high prices, the service had become unprofitable according to the two airlines which operated Concorde, British Airways and Air France.
The supersonic passenger jet was developed in a joint project between Britain and France, hence its name, but Air France had already retired its Concorde fleet six months earlier. The final BA Concorde from New York was one of three touching down at Heathrow within minutes of each other on October 24th, 2003, giving the waiting crowds a triple thrill. The other two carried competition winners on a short flight from Edinburgh and specially invited guests on a flight from the Bay of Biscay.
All three aircraft taxied to the BA engineering base at Heathrow, their crews hanging out of the cockpit windows and waving union jacks. Running costs for Concorde had spiralled, partly because the aircraft were getting older and required more maintenance. At the same time, ticket sales had slumped for a variety of reasons, not least the catastrophic crash of an Air France Concorde shortly after take-off from Paris in July 2000.
All 109 people on board, plus four on the ground, were killed in the crash, which saw all Concordes grounded for more than a year for thorough safety overhauls. By the time passenger flights resumed in November 2001, all air travel had declined following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America. Meanwhile, new generation subsonic passenger jets were closing the journey time gap and offered considerably more comfort, especially for premium class passengers. It made it hard to justify paying twice the price to travel on the ageing Concorde, which was cramped, noisy and uncomfortable, no matter how much Champagne you were served.
Despite all that, British tycoon Richard Branson was convinced he could make Concorde pay and made several bids to buy the British Airways fleet for his rival airline Virgin Atlantic. He was unsuccessful and instead the iconic aircraft were sold off to aviation museums and exhibitions around the world. Most made one final flight out of Heathrow, heading to their new homes, but the last to leave was taken by road to the Museum of Flight, near Edinburgh.
A 2003 auction of spare parts and other Concorde paraphernalia attracted intense interest, with most items selling well above their catalogue price to enthusiasts keen to snap up a piece of aviation history. A blanket estimated at $100 sold for $2,000 while a door sold for $33,000 and a spare needle-point nose cone – perhaps Concorde’s most distinctive feature – made $550,000.
Over the past 15 years there have been several reports of businesses and enthusiast groups seeking to restore a Concorde to flying condition as a ‘heritage aircraft’ for displays or private charter, but it would be an immense technical undertaking and sceptics within the industry claim it will never happen.