It is 20 years since the last commercial flight of Concorde

When a 1960s dream ran headlong into economic reality

Today marks 20 years since the final commercial flight of the iconic supersonic airliner, Concorde.

Concorde was born of studies in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually resulting in the delta-winged airliner, powered to supersonic speeds by four Olympus engines and featuring a nose that could be lowered for landing visibility.

Only 20 of the aircraft were built, of which 18 remain. Various factors prevented any more from being made, ranging from concerns about noise from the sonic booms over ground to fuel efficiency compared to the alternatives. There were also allegations of protectionism from some quarters. While the Soviet Union had its version in the form of the Tupolev Tu-144, the US had no comparable aircraft following the cancellation of the Boeing 2707 in 1971.

Subsonic aircraft such as the Boeing 747 were considerably more fuel efficient than Concorde. As ticket prices were driven down and fuel costs increased, airlines stayed away in droves, leaving just Air France and BOAC – succeeded by British Airways – as the recipients of the airliners produced during the short production run.

Still, Concorde was an impressive piece of engineering. The narrow body could only accommodate four passengers abreast, but it introduced multiple innovations, including an analog fly-by-wire system, as well as halving the time to make a transatlantic flight.

However, since development had pretty much ceased in the 1970s, the airliner's days were always numbered despite the relatively low number of hours the airframes had flown. The fatal crash of Air France 4590 in July 2000 resulted in a grounding of the fleet, and the return to flight came just before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Normal commercial operations resumed later that year, yet the fate of Concorde was pretty much sealed. In April 2003, British Airways and Air France announced the aircraft would be retired, and 20 years ago today, the last commercial flight was flown. Airbus, which had acquired the original manufacturer, also announced that spares would no longer be supplied.

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson offered to snap up the retired aircraft, but without Airbus's support, it is difficult to see how long Concorde could have continued operating. After all, the first-class travel experience was considerably inferior to that on offer from subsonic aircraft once one discounted the glamour of speed.

The very last flight of Concorde would go ahead in November 2003, from Heathrow to Bristol. It would also set a final speed record on its flight from New York to Seattle in the same month.

The airworthiness certificates of the airliners, now mostly sat in museums, have long been withdrawn, and none will ever fly again. Bits and pieces – including the engines – occasionally come up in auctions, and some museums have shown impressive creativity with their displays, most notably Germany's Museum Sinsheim, where both an Air France Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144 can be seen mounted as if in flight.

Otherwise, there is always the British Airways example stationed at the end of Heathrow. A reminder for passengers staring out of the window of a subsonic aircraft, faced with a lengthy long-haul flight, that things weren't always this way. ®

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