At 11.30 G.M.T. next Wednesday morning (January 21st) two Concorde aircraft will take off simultaneously?
At 11.30 G.M.T. next Wednesday morning (January 21st) two Concorde aircraft will take off simultaneously from London and Paris to start the world's first supersonic passenger service. The flight from London's Heathrow Airport will make the 3,500 mile (5,600 km) journey to Bahrain in 4 1/4 hours -- two hours faster than the present scheduled time. The aircraft leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, will fly by way of Dakar in Senegal, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in just over seven hours -- little more than half the time taken by a subsonic jumbo jet. On each service, there are to be two flights a week each way.
The new services bring to fruition more than thirteen years of joint effort by the British and French governments and the two manufacturers, the British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale of France. The agreement to build a joint supersonic transport aircraft was signed in November 1962. The first metal was cut in 1965, and the first prototype, 001, made its maiden flight in France in March 1969. Since then, eight Concordes have flown more than 5,000 hours on test and promotion flights, covered more than five million miles (eight million kilometres) and landed in 49 countries.
The Concorde has always been a controversial aircraft -- on both economic and environmental grounds. The burden that research and development costs laid on the national exchequer of Britain and France brought it under critical scrutiny more than once, particularly in Britain. But the eventual decision was tom "carry on". About a dozen airlines that showed interest in buying concordes in the early days, came to the conclusion that they could not, for the present, see their way to operating them on a sound economic basis, and withdrew or let their options lapse. At the moment, the manufacturers have firm orders only for nine aircraft: five for British Airways and four for Air France. The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration has signed a preliminary agreement to purchase three, and Iranair two, with an option on a third.
British Airways are charging GBP676 sterling (about 1,350 U.S. dollars) for the round trip to Bahrain -- about 15 per cent above the normal first-class fare. They reckon that at this rate, Concorde will prove economic if it regularly flew 65 per cent full. This is the vital calculation other airlines will face in deciding whether to buy: whether the fast travel-time will attract enough passengers ready to pay a fare high enough to cover the aircraft's operating costs.
The other great controversy has been about noise and pollution. The "sonic boom" heard on the ground as an aircraft goes through the sound barrier, has led several countries to ban overflying at supersonic speeds. On its way to Bahrain, Concorde will fly at subsonic speed over western Europe, but has permission to fly supersonically across Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
The early medals left a thick black smoke behind them, made up of clouds of carbon particles, which also caused complaints. New engines and a new combustion chamber have much improved this situation. Now most of the complaints are about engine noise on take-off and landing. The British Secretary for Industry, Mr. Eric Varley, has said Concorde is "only slightly noisier" than a Boeing 707 or Douglas DC8. But organisations critical of aircraft noise claim to have established that it is between twice and eight times as noisy.
Noise is the main ground on which opponents of Concorde object to its being allowed to land at Washington and New York airports. A public hearing has just taken place in Washington, and produced outspoken comments on both sides. A British bishop, Hugh Montefiore, was against the plane, and the former United States presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, was in favour.
(SST stands for "supersonic transport" and is the general term in use in the United States for supersonic aircraft, including Concorde.)
The United States Secretary of Transportation, Mr. William Coleman, has promised a decision within a month on whether Concorde will be allowed to land in the United States. This is the most important decision of all for the future development of Concorde services. Once a permission is given, the Concorde could cut transatlantic flying time from seven hours to 3 1/2. This opens up the prospect that the big American airlines (who have no SST of their own, since Congress decided not to provide more funds for the development of the Boeing in 1971) might be forced to enter the market for Concordes.
In the meantime, Air France hope to start a weekly service to Venezuela in April, and British Airways have plans to extend their Bahrain service to Australia and the Far East.
Next Wednesday's Concorde flights see the inauguration of the first passenger service by supersonic aircraft; but the distinction of starting the first supersonic service of any kind belongs to the Soviet Union -- by a short head. On December 26th last, their TU-144 left Moscow to begin a service to Alma Ata, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. It was carrying mail and freight. A Soviet government spokesman has said it will not go into full passenger service until late this year.