The Concorde plane could cross the Atlantic in three and a half hours. The flight was so fast that Air France had to redesign its trays, plates, and cutlery. The accepted weight of on board service equipment was reduced to 22 pounds per passenger from the 37 pounds used on traditional aircraft. The airline approached French graphic designer Raymond Loewy to streamline the cabin. A United States resident since 1919, he had already designed the packet for Lucky Strike cigarettes, the Greyhound bus, the Studebaker Starliner coupe, the blue nose of Air Force One, and logos for Exxon, Shell, BP, TWA, and LU.
The “father of industrial design” created the headrests and tables, meal trays, plates, and cups. He also headed up the interior design of the Air France terminal at Charles-de-Gaulle airport and developed a set of brushed stainless steel cutlery that came with every meal. The soup and dessert spoons looked like lollypops, while the knives were reminiscent of oars. Andy Warhol loved them so much he stole a few after his flight!
Other passengers also indulged. “Appropriating prezzies during one’s flight became one of Concorde’s unofficial perks,” writes Lawrence Azerrad in Supersonic: The Design and Lifestyle of Concorde. Many other derivative products were created, including brochures, postcards, lighters and matchbooks, bottle openers, menus, cutlery and napkin rings, champagne buckets, shaving paraphernalia, model aircraft, and postage stamps! Passengers disembarked as if they were coming home from vacation, laden with souvenirs from their trip.
The Wings of the Future
The Concorde was a machine in a league of its own. With its aerodynamic droop nose, delta wings, and four turbojet engines designed by Snecma and Rolls Royce, it looked more like a spaceship than an airliner. “It was an aspirational vision that might have been left on the cutting-room floor of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,” writes Lawrence Azerrad, who started collecting Concorde products as a teenager in Los Angeles. “But it was miraculously, gloriously real.”
The year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Concorde flight, on March 2, 1969. However, the origins of the supersonic project date back to the late 1950s. At the time, the world powers were all racing to create the first supersonic airliner. France and Britain teamed up against the United States and the Soviet Union, and developed plans for a plane capable of breaking the sound barrier. The first commercial flights, from London to Bahrein and from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, were inaugurated in 1976.
Champagne and Canapés at Mach 2
The Concorde plane was only used by two airlines, Air France and British Airways. Three flights a week were introduced between Paris and Washington D.C., but the New York authorities claimed the European plane caused two much noise and banned it from flying over the city. The restrictions were lifted in 1977, and the Air France Concorde landed at JFK airport for the first time on November 22 at 8:45 p.m. The flight lasted four hours less than today. French newspaper Le Figaro ran an article entitled Un vol historique trop court (“A historic flight, over too soon”).
The passengers on the JFK flight included aviator Maurice Bellonte. With his copilot Dieudonné Costes, he was the first to cross the Atlantic from East to West in 1930. Their flight lasted 37 hours and 14 minutes. Forty-seven years later, the Concorde plane flew at Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound –, covering ten miles in the time it took to fill a glass of champagne. According to the then president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Concorde represented “the continental drift in reverse” and an exceptional development in Franco-American relations.
The Time-Traveling Plane
A new record was set on December 24, 1989, when the Concorde plane made it from Paris to New York in 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds – ten times faster than the time set by Charles Lindbergh in 1927! But flying at this speed came at a price, with round-trip tickets sold for as much as 12,000 euros. Businesspeople were delighted to arrive in New York before they had even left Paris thanks to the time difference. Jackie Kennedy used to reserve two seats to have more space, while Rostropovich always booked three to have his cello next to him. And in the early 1980s, Beaujolais wine merchant Georges Dubœuf made tracks into the American market by personally delivering the first cases… by Concorde!
In 27 years of service, Air France transported 1.3 million of the world’s smart set. But the Concorde soon reached its limits. It consumed far too much fuel – a ton per passenger – and could only transport 100 people at a time. This made it impossible to balance costs, and the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 sapped profits even further. Only 20 planes were built in total. It seems Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber was right when he said that Concorde was an “industrial Vietnam.”
The White Bird Retires
“Some believed it would have been better to design a slower plane that could transport more passengers,” said Jean Philippot, the North America Air France deputy director when Concorde was launched, in an interview with France-Amérique in 2014. The Concorde brand image made up for a lack of profits, and rational arguments were swept aside in the name of national prestige. But the accident in Gonesse on June 25, 2000, when Concorde crashed 1 minute and 28 seconds after takeoff, sealed the fate of supersonic flight.
Concorde’s final transatlantic flight for Air France took place on June 27 2003, and for British Airways between JFK and Heathrow on October 24 of the same year. Both were fully-booked. The one hundred on the final flight included U.S. model Christie Brinkley and a couple from Ohio who had bought their tickets on eBay for 60,000 dollars! The British Airways flight took off from New York at 7:38 a.m., and breakfast was served when plane reached Mach 2. Passengers indulged in smoked salmon, caviar, and lobster cakes, all washed down with Pol Roger champagne. The pilot had to hold back his tears on landing. Three Concorde planes remained in the United States. One was exhibited at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, and another at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia. The final aircraft was lifted onto the deck of the Intrepid aircraft carrier and museum in New York.
The End of the Supersonic Era
With Concorde out of service, Air France focused on a new project, the A380. The jumbo jet launched in 2009 is slower, but can carry up to 800 passengers. No commercial plane has broken the sound barrier since, and today’s airliners fly at between 500 mph and 560 mph. The Paris-New York flight takes eight hours, and has not changed in 40 years. Any increase in speed implies financial and technological costs that airlines are not willing to bear.
This status quo still saddens those nostalgic for the days of Concorde. CNN journalist Richard Quest was aboard the final supersonic flight on October 24, 2003. “This is the first time in history that aviation history is taking a step backwards,” he wrote. “Everyone on today’s flight is well aware of that fact.”
Article published in the November 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.